If your employer produced digital evidence showing that you embezzled substantial sums of money from them, how would you prove that you did not? In principle, the burden of proof lies with the prosecutor. In principle, you do not have to prove your innocence. But faced with a seemingly unassailable printout detailing all the money the computer says is missing, what exactly will your defense attorney say?
A simple refusal is not enough. You could try to show that you haven’t lived on hogs, that you haven’t lived a life of luxury vacations and private jets. Unless you rip the source code, you look guilty as hell.
This was the predicament faced by over 730 deputy postmasters and postmistresses across the UK between 2000 and 2013. Designed by Fujitsu, the Horizon system was intended to fully digitize the transactions of the post office, registering all the money leaving a branch. . Conceived as a modernization and anti-fraud measure, Horizon would instead generate fraud on the criminal justice system on an unprecedented scale.
Horizon did not work. After the new accounting system was rolled out in 2000, deputy postmasters across the country began reporting problems and glitches in its operation. Money in store and money registered in the system do not balance each other. We’re not talking pennies and pounds here: Horizon has reported tens of thousands of people getting lost.
Until 2014, the Post claimed that “there is absolutely no evidence of systemic problems with the IT system which is used by over 78,000 people in our 11,500 branches and successfully processes over six million transactions every day”.
As subsequent litigation has now established, that was a lie. There was rampant evidence of “bugs, errors and flaws” in the Horizon software. It could have been just another story of incompetent public procurement – if the Post hadn’t treated Horizon’s evidence as gospel and used it to sue hundreds of its own postmasters in court for these phantom misses.
First, requests for money would be made. Sub-postmasters were contractually bound to make up any shortfall out of their own pockets. If they refused to pay, their branch would be closed the next day. But even as postmasters filled Horizon’s gaps, other audits often followed, identifying additional and larger sums of money missing. Some have been fired. Others have been prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting. Faced with seemingly irrefutable financial evidence, many postmasters pleaded guilty. Some have served substantial prison time.
What was the extent of Horizon’s prosecution in Scotland? Until this week, it was impossible to say for sure. When Sir Wyn Williams traveled to Glasgow in the spring of this year to hold hearings into the human impact of the postal scandal on Scottish deputy postmasters and mistresses, it was striking that none of the witnesses had not been prosecuted.
Their lives and their fortunes had been destroyed. Due to the Post Office’s false allegations of financial irregularities, many had accumulated substantial personal debts to cover shortfalls. Others spoke of the loss of pensions they had worked for for decades. Each lost their reputation in the communities they once served. But curiously, not a single postmaster who testified was taken to court by Scottish authorities.
This is a crucial difference in the anatomy of the post office scandal north and south of the border. In England and Wales, the Post Office has acted as alleged victim, investigator, plea bargainer and prosecutor in its Horizon cases. It was the Post Office that sent threatening letters to its alleged postmasters. It was the post office that embellished the indictments, accusing the post deputy masters of theft while promising that if they were willing to plead guilty to the lesser charge of false accounting, then business could be concluded. It was the Post Office that forced its former employees to cough up their savings to cover shortfalls, and it was the Post Office that insisted that Postmasters pleading guilty not mention any wrongdoing by Horizon in the pleas. mitigation made on their behalf. It was the devil’s business, but you can understand why so many postmasters agreed to the terms. What else were they supposed to do?
In Scotland, by contrast, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has a functional monopoly over public prosecutions. La Poste is only a specialized reporting agency. Like HMRC, they can refer suspected crime directly to the tax prosecutor without police involvement, but the final decision whether or not to prosecute the suspect and why they should be prosecuted rests with independent prosecutors.
Which begs an obvious question: how many people in Scotland has the Crown prosecuted using Horizon’s evidence? So far, 75 convictions have been overturned in England and Wales, but the scale of the Scottish problem has remained fundamentally unclear.
This week, things got a little clearer. On Tuesday, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred six cases to the Court of Appeal. They concluded that the convictions of Aleid Kloosterhuis, William Quarm, Susan Sinclair, Colin Smith, Judith Smith and Rab Thomson may have constituted miscarriages of justice.
In each case, the SCCRC concluded that “Horizon’s evidence was essential to proving the accounting deficit that led to the charges against them and that their prosecution was oppressive because the process was an affront to justice.” They also confirmed that five other cases are still under review.
The SCCRC cannot release its detailed reasons for referring the convictions to the Court, but the information they shared this week provides insight into where these prosecutions were brought and what kind of penalties these men and women faced. were accused of cooking the books. Of the six Scottish postmasters and mistresses, only Susan Sinclair pleaded “not guilty” at trial. The others pleaded, hoping to avoid jail. Of the six, four were given community sentences, while Judith Smith was admonished. Aleid Kloosterhuis was imprisoned for 12 months.
Campbeltown, Lochmaddy, Peterhead, Dunfermline, Selkirk, Alloa – reading the list of Sheriff Courts where these charges have been pursued, it is striking that these allegations have surfaced in rural and small town Scotland. One of the saddest dimensions of the scandal is how it stripped innocent people of their reputations, convincing former friends and neighbors that people were caught. Growing up in one, it’s easy to see how much more difficult it must have been in smaller communities, where everyone knows your name and anonymity is rare.
Digging through the fossil record – it’s striking that only one such lawsuit was reported in the media at the time – and it involved the only postwoman on the SCCRC list to have been sentenced to prison. In December 2012, the Daily Mail reported on the prosecution of Aleid Kloosterhuis. She was 54 when she pleaded guilty to stealing £20,000 from her Gigha post office branch. Originally from the Netherlands, Kloosterhuis moved to the island off the west coast of Kintyre with her husband and children. “She was welcomed into the community – but islanders were horrified to find that she had gradually siphoned off the profits,” the newspaper noted.
The discovery was attributed to “a surprise visit from the auditors of the Post Office”, but it was certainly not a careful reading of the books that drew Kloosterhuis into the net of suspicion – but the Post Office’s Horizon system. They expected to find £27,868 in cash and shares “but there was hardly any money in the safe”.
When sentencing Kloosterhuis, Sheriff Ruth Anderson pointed to the apparent breach of trust as an aggravating factor. “When you carried out the embezzlement, you were in a position of trust as an underpost of an island community.” In a grim echo of the destabilizing effect these convictions have had on the people and community caught up there, one resident described the conduct of Kloosterhuis as “harmful to the life and soul of the island”.
Robert Thomson – known as Rab – has since spoken to Scottish media about his case. He took over Poste Cambus in Alloa in the early 2000s. Thomson told BBC Scotland he had reported shortfalls from Horizon to Fujitsu, but that didn’t save him when a later audit claimed that he was short £5,700. Rab described the allegations as “the most embarrassing situation of my life”. It also embarrassed his elderly mother Margaret, from whom he had inherited the post office branch. The word got around. Ashamed, Margaret confined herself to the house. “I went to see mum one day and found her dead,” he said. He blames himself. “She didn’t want anything to go wrong with the family.”
The book about the Post Office scandal is a book of tragic stories like this – just ordinary people who got caught up in a nightmare, the trajectories of hundreds of lives forever changed. The mouth ulcer of this injustice will never really heal: the damage is done. But there can and must be justice and accountability for those who inflicted – and felt – this terrible wrong.