LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Wednesday he will introduce measures to overturn the convictions of more than 900 post office branch managers who were wrongly accused of theft or fraud because of a faulty computer system.
Sunak said the scandal, which saw hundreds of postmasters falsely convicted of stealing money because Post Office computers wrongly showed that funds were missing from their shops, was “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history.”
Of the more than 900 postal branch managers who were convicted of theft or fraud between 1999 and 2015, just 95 have managed to overturn their convictions, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said.
Some were sent to prison, and many were financially ruined after being forced to pay large sums to the state-owned Post Office. Several killed themselves. In total, over 2,000 people were affected by the scandal.
The real culprit was a defective accounting software package called Horizon, supplied by the Japanese technology firm Fujitsu, which was rolled out across Post Office branches starting in the late 1990s.
Sunak told lawmakers that a new law will be introduced to ensure that those wrongly convicted are “swiftly exonerated and compensated.”
“People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own,” he said. “We will make sure that the truth comes to light, we right the wrongs of the past and the victims get the justice they deserve.”
Sunak’s office acknowledged that the blanket quashing of convictions was unusual, but argued that it was justified because of the “exceptional situation.”
For years, the state-owned Post Office maintained that data from Horizon was reliable and accused branch managers of dishonesty.
In 2016 a group of affected postal workers joined a group legal action against the Post Office that was key in uncovering the scandal. The High Court ruled three years later that Horizon contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and that it was likely that those defects caused the shortfalls in the branch accounts.
Officials said Wednesday that the hundreds of postal workers who joined that legal action will be offered an upfront payment of 75,000 pounds ($95,500) each.
Those whose convictions are overturned will be entitled to a 600,000-pound compensation payment, officials added.
While the scandal has rumbled on for years, it hit the headlines again this week thanks to a hit TV docudrama on the issue. The ITV show, “Mr. Bates vs the Post Office,” charted a two-decade battle by branch manager Alan Bates, played by Toby Jones, to expose the truth and clear the wronged postal workers.
The show, watched by millions of people, helped to refocus political attention on the victims’ battle for justice. Last week police said they opened a fraud investigation into the Post Office, saying officers are looking into potential offenses of perjury and perverting the course of justice over investigations and prosecutions carried out by the Post Office.
So far, no one from the company or from Fujitsu has been arrested or faced criminal charges. An independent public inquiry has been ongoing since 2022.
And on Tuesday, ex-Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells said she would relinquish the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire that she received in 2018. An online petition calling for her to be stripped of the honor had garnered more than 1.2 million supporters.