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Bad software sent postal workers to jail, because no one wanted to admit it could be wrong

Bad software sent postal workers to jail, because no one wanted to admit it could be wrong


Data from the Horizon system was used to prove they stole money — but they didn't

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Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images

For the past 20 years UK Post Office employees have been dealing with a piece of software called Horizon, which had a fatal flaw: bugs that made it look like employees stole tens of thousands of British pounds. This led to some local postmasters being convicted of crimes, even being sent to prison, because the Post Office doggedly insisted the software could be trusted. After fighting for decades, 39 people are finally having their convictions overturned, after what is reportedly the largest miscarriage of justice that the UK has ever seen.

The impact on these employees has been vast: according to the BBC, some have lost marriages or time with their children. Talking to the BBC, Janet Skinner said that she was taken away from her two kids for nine months when she was imprisoned, after the software showed a £59,000 shortfall. She also says she lost a job offer because of her criminal conviction. The time she and others like her spent in jail can’t be bought back, and it happened because software was taken at its word.

According to the BBC, another woman, who swore she was innocent, was sent to prison for theft while she was pregnant. One man reportedly died by suicide after the computer system showed that he had lost almost £100,000. Within a few months, his replacement also faced losses due to discrepancies from the software.

The UK’s prime minister weighed in, calling the original convictions “an appalling injustice”

Horizon was made by Japanese company Fujitsu, and information from it was used to prosecute 736 Post Office employees between 2000 and 2014, some of whom ended up going to jail. Bugs in the system would cause it to report that accounts that were under the employees’ control were short — the BBC has reported that some employees even tried to close the gap by remortgaging their homes, or using their own money.

It does seem like the nightmare for the employees may be coming to an end. The 39 who had their convictions overturned are following another six who were cleared of wrongdoing back in December. The Post Office has also been working on financially compensating other employees who were caught up by the software.

In 2019 the Post Office settled with 555 claimants and paid damages to them, and it’s also set up a system to repay other affected employees. So far, according to the BBC, more than 2,400 claims have been made.

Earlier this month the chief executive of the Post Office said that Horizon would be replaced with a new, cloud-based solution. In the same speech, he said that the Post Office would work with the government to compensate the employees who were affected by Horizon’s inaccuracies.

The UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson also weighed in today, calling the original convictions “an appalling injustice.”

Some employees seem happy with just a monetary settlement and their names being cleared. But there is also now a campaign group calling for a full public inquiry, and some of the people whose names were cleared today have called for those in charge to be held responsible.

The BBC reported that the Post Office argued the errors couldn’t have been be the fault of the computer system — despite knowing that wasn’t true. There is evidence that the Post Office’s legal department was aware that the software could produce inaccurate results, even before some of the convictions were made. According to the BBC, one of the representatives for the Post Office workers said that the post office “readily accepted the loss of life, liberty and sanity for many ordinary people” in its “pursuit of reputation and profit.”