The Post Office IT scandal, which saw the wrongful conviction of hundreds of workers for theft, is the “largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history”, an inquiry has heard.
Dozens of Post Office workers will take the stand over the coming weeks to detail how the organisation helped put innocent men and women in jail, tore apart their families, and left them seeking mental health support.
In the second day of the Horizon inquiry, Damian Owen, a brand manager from Anglesey spoke about how he was wrongfully accused – and then convicted – of stealing thousands of pounds from the Post Office.
He told the inquiry that he had been fighting his conviction for ten years, before it was overturned last April.
“I can’t get those ten years back,” Mr Owen said. Damian Owen was the branch manager of one of the Bangor branches of the Post Office in North Wales.
He was audited in 2010 and the auditor found a shortfall of nearly £25,000. The small, quiet branch mainly serviced the older people who lived in the area and the most money Mr Owen had ever known the branch to hold was around £13,000.
When he was told of the £25,000 shortfall, it didn’t make sense. Crucially, two weeks before the audit they had had a new IT system put in – the Horizon online system.
The IT system, which turned out to be faulty, helped to frame over 700 innocent people.
Speaking at the inquiry on Tuesday, Mr Owen questioned why the scandal had not been reported more widely, saying: “Is this not the largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history? I think we deserve better.”
He called for a full personal apology from the Post Office, calling their letter “the most feeble apology I have ever received for anything in my life”. He also asked for significant financial compensation and for the people responsible to be convicted.
A total of 736 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office based on evidence from the Horizon IT system between 2000 and 2015, Computer Weekly – who originally exposed the scandal – reported.
A group of 555 sub-postmasters successfully used the courts to force the Post Office to set up a Historic Shortfall Scheme, which handed out £57.7million in damages.
However after legal costs were paid, the workers were left with just £11million – which when shared out came to £20,000 on average.
In most cases, this didn’t even cover the money they had been forced to repay the Post Office after they were wrongfully accused of stealing.
Lisa Brennan, from Liverpool, told the Horizon inquiry on Tuesday that the Post Office had been her life since she started as a counter clerk at the age of 16.
“I loved my work, I loved my job,” she said. “Then the next thing I knew my life got turned upside down.” In June 2002, she was suspended and then sacked from her job as clerk for stealing.
She was later wrongly convicted on 27 counts of theft. On the final day of her court hearing in September 2003, she turned to her six-year-old daughter Jess and told her that if she was sent to prison she would take her own life.
“I couldn’t have gone to prison,” Ms Brennan told the inquiry. “I felt ashamed.” The judge sentenced her to six months imprisonment, suspended for two years.
The ordeal left her bankrupt and homeless, she said. “There were times when I went hungry so that Jess could eat.”