top of page

Mr. Bates vs The Post Office: The Decades-Long Miscarriage of Justice that Inspired the Hit Drama

Written by Anoushka Patel

Edited by Queenie Lin and Annika Lilja


(CC BY-SA 2.0) Bailgate Post Office by Richard Croft

Mr Bates vs The Post Office tells the true story of a scandal that has been going on for the last two decades, and yet it is suddenly dominating UK politics. Here is a guide to the saga of the Post Office and its Horizon IT system.


What is it all about?

It has been described by the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, as one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in UK history: the unfounded allegations of fraud levelled at thousands of people between 1999 and 2015. 


The initial fault was with Horizon, a digital accounting system installed by the Japanese IT company Fujitsu, which wrongly claimed that post office branches had cash shortfalls. This was then compounded by the Post Office, the publicly owned company behind the network, which rejected any fault with Horizon and insisted operators must have taken the money.


Overall, 3,500 branch owner-operators were wrongly accused and more than 900 were prosecuted, with many of these imprisoned. Some suffered significant ill health, financial ruin, local ostracism, divorce, and in at least four cases, suicide.


Who were the people wrongly accused?

They were sub-postmasters and postmistresses, who owned and ran smaller post offices as franchises.  While they were independent, often owning the building where the business was based, they were part of the Post Office system, which handles not just letters and parcels but also banking, bill payments, money transfers, and applications for documents.


The Post Office, which has about 11,500 branches across the UK, was formerly part of Royal Mail but was sectioned off in 2012 when the mail service was privatised.


How could the injustice last so long?

This is one of the key questions for a public inquiry into the scandal that began in 2021 and is still hearing evidence, but the main force behind the prosecution was seemingly a toxic and secretive management culture in the Post Office, in which the victims' concerns were belittled and dismissed. 


Numerous operators accused of theft were told they were the only people facing such claims, only to find out later that hundreds of others had been similarly targeted when Computer Weekly broke the story in 2008. Notable among these was Alan Bates, a post office operator accused of stealing thousands of pounds from his branch and later set up a campaign group called the Justice for Sub Postmasters Alliance.


Aware that something was amiss, in 2012, the Post Office commissioned a company of forensic accountants to investigate the fraud claims, but after the accountants found possible fault with Horizon, their contract was terminated.


When was the injustice acknowledged and redressed?

It was only in 2019 that a group of post office operators won a high court case ruling that their convictions were wrongful and Horizon was at fault. This decision was upheld on appeal in 2021, quashing the convictions of some ex-employees and beginning the path to compensation.


Between these two court decisions, in October 2020, the Post Office formally apologised for what it called “historical failings”. However, the process of clearing those affected has been slow; by December, only 142 appeal case reviews had been completed out of over 900 people convicted.


Why is the story suddenly in the headlines now?

For one reason: Mr. Bates vs The Post Office. The serial was broadcast in the first week of January by ITV, the UK’s main commercial TV station, starring the actor Toby Jones as Alan Bates. It brought home the human consequences of the saga, bringing an immediate reaction from the media and politicians. The scandal has captured the attention of a nation that has seen its justice system degrade due to overcapacity over the last decade. 


What happened in response to the drama?

Less than a week after the final episode was aired, Sunak announced a plan to pass a law that would overturn the convictions of all those accused of Horizon-related fraud or theft and offer them immediate compensation – either an agreed lump sum of up to £600,000 or an amount to be settled on. The plan is for this to be completed by the summer of 2024. However, given the number of years that the scandal took place and the lack of accountability taken by those in charge at the time, it has been widely agreed that this compensation is not enough to make up for the trauma that the accused experienced. As many sub-postmasters went bankrupt trying to pay back the money they supposedly stole, much of the compensation will allegedly be spent on legal fees. As of the time of writing, only 86 sub-postmasters have had their convictions overturned, making them allegeable for compensation. 


Is this the end of the story?

The definitive answer is no. Some politicians connected to the scandal have faced calls to apologise, and there are suggestions Fujitsu should cover the costs of the compensation. Although the Post Office is a publicly owned company, and therefore it is the government and the taxpayers who will foot the bill for the compensation sum, it has been argued that it is unfair to make the public pay for the mismanagement, corruption, and negligence at the top. 


The Post Office is now under criminal investigation over potential fraud offences as well. Paula Vennells, the former Post Office chief executive, has already said she will return her CBE - an official honour - that she received in 2019, but some say that she should have done more to investigate the scandal when the Post Office was under her leadership.


Some MPs from Prime Minister Sunak’s Conservative party have focused criticism on Sir Ed Davey, leader of one of the main opposition parties in the UK (the Liberal Democrats) for allegedly not taking the scandal seriously when he was the business minister responsible for the Post Office from 2010-12 as part of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. However, he is not the only politician who has come under fire for not doing enough to prevent the wrongful persecution of the sub-postmasters; recent evidence has come to light that shows that Prime Ministers as far back as Sir Tony Blair knew about the scandal. 


 

Sources:


Catt, H. (2024) Tony Blair was warned Horizon IT system could be flawed, documents show, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-67941495 (Accessed: 07 February 2024).


Sweney, M. (2023) Post Office: Horizon scandal victims to receive £600,000 compensation each, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/sep/18/post-office-horizon-scandal-victims-compensation (Accessed: 07 February 2024).


Martin, L. (2024) Mr Bates vs The Post Office: How a TV Drama shook up Britain – in just a week, BBC Culture. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20240112-post-office-scandal-how-a-tv-drama-shook-up-britain-in-just-a-week (Accessed: 07 February 2024).


Fenwick, J. (2024) Ed Davey was advised to meet Post Office campaigner Alan Bates to avoid bad publicity, BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-68222915 (Accessed: 07 February 2024)


Baker, T (2024). Horizon scandal: Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells to hand back her CBE with ‘immediate effect’, Sky News. Available at: https://news.sky.com/story/former-post-office-boss-paula-vennells-to-hand-back-her-cbe-13044576 (Accessed: 07 February 2024)

Comments


bottom of page