Wagatha Christie, Jonny Depp, Amber Heard . . . it’s been quite the week for courtroom drama. But the biggest legal scandal of them all might well be the one unfolding at the Marriot Hotel in Glasgow right now.
And there aren’t even any household names in this one.
Well, not unless you count the Post Office.
Which is an unlikely villain, I grant you.
But it turns out one of our most trusted institutions has contorted itself into the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
And while a lot of people are finally being allowed to clear their names, there are surely others who have yet to be held accountable.
The hearings in Glasgow are being held as part of the inquiry into the Post Office accounting scandal.
Scandal is one of those words we bandy around a lot in the media. A bit too often maybe.
But I’m not sure it even comes close to conveying the enormity of the wrong that’s happened here.
So here’s a recap of the facts for anyone who thinks they must have half remembered them from a nightmare.
Flawed system left hundreds of lives ruined
Between 2000 and 2014 more than 700 sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting by the Post Office.
It’s now known the problems were down to a flaw in the Horizon computer system.
But the Post Office refused to accept this at the time, seemingly finding it more plausible that hundreds of formerly loyal servants had all of a sudden decided to go a bit rogue.
Faced with threats of criminal conviction, sub-postmasters poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of their own money into the system to try to make up the non-existent shortfalls.
People went bankrupt, went to jail and went to their graves with their reputations in tatters.
A total of 72 former sub-postmasters have had their convictions quashed since the Post Office scandal was uncovered. They’re still waiting for compensation.
The Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission is understood to be reviewing at least nine more convictions north of the border. Many more might follow
Local casualties of the Post Office scandal
The inquiry is examining whether the Post Office or Fujitsu, which developed the Horizon software, knew about the IT faults when it ruined these people’s lives.
We’re talking about people like former Pitlochry sub-postmaster Chris Dawson who gave evidence on Thursday.
An emotional afternoon at the human impact hearings in the Scottish leg of the Post Office scandal inquiry. People whose lives have been palpably crushed by what they were falsely accused of. People burning with palpable and justified fury. Defies belief.
— PeatWorrier (@PeatWorrier) May 11, 2022
Mr Dawson was threatened with jail and suspended on no pay for six months over a “missing” £17,500.
He was eventually declared bankrupt and lost his business, his home, his car and his marriage.
Perhaps biggest of all, he lost the trust of his community.
Well, who are the neighbours going to believe, he asked the inquiry: “Me or a 300-year-old institution?”
That’s another key word here. Community.
Nobody goes into running a post office because they want to get rich quick.
A lot of them do it because being part of a community matters to them.
They’re the kind of people who can stomach faffing about with irritating red tape at all hours of the day and night if it means they’re providing a valued service in towns and villages that have gradually been stripped of banks and benefits offices.
People like Mary Philip, who died in 2018, aged 83, without getting the chance to clear her name.
Her daughter, also Mary, told the inquiry her mum ploughed £70,000 – much of it borrowed – back into her branch at Auchtermuchty when it was plagued by shortfall after shortfall.
It wasn’t enough.
Mrs Philip was wrongly accused of stealing from the till and suspended by Post Office auditors in 2006 and the family became the targets of gossip and accusations of theft and fraud.
“Horizon and the Post Office robbed us of our money, our dignity and our name,” her daughter said.
Did nobody notice? That beggars belief
I called the Post Office the villain of this scandal earlier. But it’s not.
It’s a big old behemoth of a business staffed by individuals making decisions which sometimes have the power to change the course of someone else’s life.
And this scandal didn’t come to light because someone at the Post Office suddenly thought “Hang on, this is all a bit of a coincidence, isn’t it?”.
It was uncovered after years of painstaking investigative journalism by reporters working for titles such as Computer Weekly, which broke the story, and by Nick Wallis, author of the book The Great Post Office Scandal.
Whistleblowers have said the flaws in the Horizon system were widespread and widely known about.
Yet a common complaint from sub-postmasters is that when they tried to raise concerns, they were told they were the only person having this problem.
It seems inconceivable that someone with oversight of the bigger picture didn’t think “Hang on, this isn’t the only person having this problem” at some point along the way to ruining more than 700 lives.
And if that’s the case, surely clearing the victims’ names is only the first step on the road to justice.
It’s important that the innocent are finally being recognised.
I wonder if the day is coming when we’ll be able to say the same for the guilty?