A lesser-known British scandal has been brought to the attention of the public through the release of a semi-biographical miniseries that was released by the BBC. “Mr Bates Vs. The Post Office” has not only captured the attention of the British public, it has also brought about massive and unexpected political reform.

A “Small” Scandal That Affected Hundreds

Some scandals make local and international headlines in a big way. In the UK, the divorce and subsequent death of Princess Diana of Wales from then-Prince Charles is one such scandal. Other scandals are smaller, only known about by the people they affect, even when they affect those people in a big way.

Source: BBC

The Horizon Post Office Scandal is a major story, one that spans over fifteen years of time, from 1999 to 2015. It affected hundreds of British citizen’s lives in a big way, and it is in the spotlight again after the release of the BBC miniseries.

Introducing Horizon

The scandal involves software called Horizon, and the British post service. Starting in 1999, the Post Office used Horizon as a method of keeping track of tasks such as accounting and stocktaking. It was a largely autonomous software, without need for much interference from human workers in the postal system.

Source: ITV

This was the early days of computer technology, though, and from its introduction, sub-postmasters in the system complained that the program had multiple bugs and glitches that were making their jobs more difficult, not easier.

Horizon Reported False Numbers

One of the major bugs that Horizon was guilty of was reporting shortfalls in profit, often to the number of thousands of pounds. Sub-postmasters and postmistresses noticed the shortfall in the numbers, but when they reported the glitches in the system, they faced heavy consequences.

Source: BBC

These consequences were just the early stages of the Horizon scandal. Some of the ultimate consequences included being fired, being forced to pay the shortfall fines due to contractual obligation, and in some extreme cases, incarceration.

Postal Workers Were Blamed

When the false numbers that Horizon reported were discovered, hundreds of postal workers were accused of stealing from the system. Some tried to make up the shortfall before they were caught, which led to some bigger problems in people’s lives.

Source: Welsh Snapper

Beyond being criminally charged, for the people who were affected there were myriad consequences. Marriages were strained and ended, individuals had to declare bankruptcy, and many were financially ruined and their livelihoods destroyed because of the fault accounting software.

The Post Office Investigates

One might be wondering why postmasters went to prison because of a technology glitch that led to the appearance of an accounting error. The answer lies in the prosecutorial powers of the Post Office.

Source: YouTube/WatchMojoUK

While the Post Office in Britain doesn’t contain any special powers of bringing private prosecutions, what they did instead was investigate cases against their staff using its own investigation branch. This is an ability that comes from the ability for individuals and organizations to pursue private investigations, under English law.

Royal Mail Assists

The Post Office and Royal Mail both have a long history of engaging in private investigations and prosecutions. Royal Mail solicitors are believed to be the oldest formal prosecutors in the world, and the Post Office and Royal Mail were part of the same group owned by the government until 2012.

Source: Wikimedia/Julie Fennell

The Royal Mail was fully privatized in 2015, ending nearly 500 years of government ownership of the agency. The group still conducts private investigations, and still often collaborates with the Post Office on investigations, which the Post Office has no ability to conduct on its own.

More Than 700 Incarcerated

Due to these unique prosecutorial powers, between 1999 and 2015 the Post Office undertook hundreds of investigations against individuals employed by the service, in pursuit of justice that was brought about because of faulty software.

Source: YouTube/WatchMojoUK

Ultimately, over 700 people were incarcerated by the Post Office due to the Horizon accounting glitches, and hundreds more beyond that were investigated by other agencies. It wasn’t until 2009 that some of the individuals that were involved in the scandal started to fight back, which is when things were taken up a notch.

Postmasters Uniting

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) was founded in 2009 by a small group of postmasters who had been personally affected by the Horizon software. The goal of the group was to expose the massive cover-up that had been done by the British government on behalf of the Post Office.

Source: BBC

The campaigning from the JFSA eventually led to a 2019 hearing before the High Court, where the individuals were able to plead their case. The judge ruled that the Horizon software had been “riddled with bugs, errors, and defects” and that there was a “material risk” that the shortfalls reported to the Post Office were a direct result of the system.

The Horizon System Was Found At Fault

Beyond the findings that the Horizon system – which the Post Office still uses, to this day – was at fault for the loss of so many people’s livelihoods, the judge in the case was also deeply critical of the Post Office itself.

Source: ITV

Some of the convictions that were pushed through by the Post Office were referred to a Court of Appeal, where the Criminal Review Commission stated deep concerns over the prosecutorial powers of the Post Office. They stated that private prosecutions often have a different motive than justice, and that’s cause for concern.

People are Eligible for Compensation

While it’s gratifying that it’s formally on the record that the Horizon system was the cause of the scandal, it doesn’t help those who were affected by the accounting errors. For those people, more than 4000 individuals have been informed that they could be eligible for compensation, through a couple of different programs.

Source: Mirrorpix/Andy Stenning

The Group Litigation Order (GLO) Scheme is for former postmasters who brought a group lawsuit, and are seeking reparations beyond their legal fees paid. The Overturned Convictions Scheme is what it says on the wrapper, for those whose convictions were overturned and are now seeking compensation. Finally, the Horizon Shortfall Scheme is for those who were never prosecuted or found guilty, but who believe that they were affected by the Horizon accounting errors nonetheless.

No Formal Responsibility

While it’s welcome and much-needed that people affected by these issues are able to seek compensation, it doesn’t change the fact that many people’s lives were ruined by the Horizon software.

Source: Chris Ison

More than that, nobody in the Post Office or higher agencies has ever taken accountability for the problems. Several politicians have been heavily criticized for their role in the scandal, and Paula Vennells, the former Post Office Chief Executive, even went so far as to return her CBE in the wake of the backlash. But nobody has ever been found formally responsible.

The BBC Bringing the Issue Back

That’s not to say that people and agencies have forgotten about the issue, though. The BBC drama miniseries that sparked the conversation around the scandal came out on January 1 of this year, and after the four episode arc ended on January 4, there was public uproar.

Source: ITV

The miniseries loosely follows the event of the scandal, with several major players in the pursuit of justice against Horizon and the Post Office depicted in the miniseries. The workers in real life were led by a man named Alan Bates – played by Toby Jones in the series – resulting in the title “Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office.”

A Very, Very Successful Miniseries

The miniseries was so successful that it motivated the British public to make something happen. Within 4 days of the finale, a petition that called for the removal of Paula Vennells’ CBE had gathered over a million signatures, and one day after she agreed to the demand, the British government stepped in.

Source: Wikimedia/UK Prime Minister

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak gathered in front of a full House of Commons and strongly claimed that he would lead the implementation of a new law that would “swiftly exonerate and compensate victims” of the Horizon scandal. He has yet to offer the how’s of his plan, but the British public is watching carefully.

Mr. Bates Going Worldwide

Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office has been viewed more than 9 million times in the nearly two weeks since its release, and ITV is currently in talks to distribute the miniseries worldwide, getting the story of the Horizon scandal out to even more people.

Source: YouTube/Associated Press

As far as the real-life victims of the Horizon scandal, the litigation regarding their convictions is ongoing, as well as the fight for compensation for their hardship. It’s a horrific story of average people losing to a seemingly all-powerful entity, and the only hope of these people and those watching is that the victims will eventually find their own justice.