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Post Office Horizon Victims May Get Justice at Last

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Home » Post Office Horizon Victims May Get Justice at Last

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The ITV series ‘Mr Bates versus the Post Office’ has rightly caused a public outcry. Over 700 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted for stealing from the Post Office between 1999 and 2015. It wasn’t until 2019 that the High Court ruled that the Horizon accounting software used by the Post Office was faulty.

The wrongly accused experienced depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, public humiliation, false imprisonment and bankruptcy. Some killed themselves, and 60 died before they could be exonerated. The majority are still waiting for their appeals to be heard and have not been fully compensated.

Here are a few of the stories told by survivors which were reported in the Independent and Guardian newspapers.

Janet Skinner noticed she couldn’t balance her accounts after the Horizon software was installed but despite calls to the software helpline she was eventually accused of stealing nearly £60,000. She was prosecuted and decided to plead guilty because she thought it would save her from prison. In fact she was sentenced to nine months. Her trouble didn’t end when she was released, she lost her home and had to pay compensation to the Post Office.

Tracy Felstead was wrongly convicted and imprisoned for six months at the age of 19. She tried to kill herself twice during the trial in 2001. She had to wait 20 years for her conviction to be overturned and hasn’t yet received her full compensation. The trauma still affects her now; she panics if a door is closed so doesn’t have any doors in her kitchen or living room.

Timothy Burgess was vilified by his fellow villagers. People avoided him or were hostile. His family was affected too. His daughter moved to a new school 30 miles away but still her father’s public shaming followed her. His sister-in-law tried to buy a shop in the village but was refused because of her association with Mr Burgess. His prosecution was overturned on appeal in 2021.

The Victims of Unfounded Allegations of Sexual Abuse Have Had the Same Experiences

The victims of unfounded allegations of sexual abuse know exactly how the Post Office workers feel. By a strange coincidence, FACT was founded in 1999, the year the first sub-postmasters were wrongly accused. In the 1990s there were a number of high profile investigations into allegations of non-recent sexual abuse in children’s homes and residential schools. By the end of the decade, so many people had been affected that they banded together to support each other and eventually FACT was formed.

Those wrongly accused of sexual abuse suffer in the same way as the Post Office workers. In 2016 the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University published the seminal paper ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victims’ Voices‘. To quote from the conclusion “The majority reported high anxiety levels, severe depression, ill health and associated symptoms of trauma, with short and longer-term symptoms, with some experiencing permanent behavioural and personality changes. The effects of false allegations were felt by their partners and children too, with anxiety and depression experienced by many family members, in addition to consequential financial burdens. The stigma of a false allegation is felt by the whole family and can lead to family breakdown, or permanently damage the relationship.”

Forced Into Pleading Guilty

Some victims of the Post Office scandal pleaded guilty even though they were innocent. The pressure to do this can be overwhelming. We are aware of someone wrongly accused of sexual abuse who was advised to plead guilty to avoid the risk of a much longer sentence. As this person was an octogenarian and in poor health they chose this route rather than risking dying alone in prison.

No Support for the Wrongly Accused

One of the sub-postmasters interviewed by the Independent told how he had nobody to talk to about his ordeal so attempted suicide. This feeling of loneliness and isolation is common among those contacting FACT too. One member said, in answer to a questionnaire about coping strategies said “no support, practical, emotional, financial, therapeutic etc. has been offered or provided . . . by any of the authorities, yet without the things we have sought out ourselves we would most likely have cracked under the strain.”

FACT tries to provide support for the wrongly accused but our resources are scarce and the need is great. Some people are too ashamed to talk to anyone about their suffering or have actually been banned from speaking. To quote again from the questionnaire replies: “I felt absolutely alone and terribly afraid. I couldn’t talk to [my husband] as he needed my strength. I couldn’t talk to family or friends as I had been told to keep absolute secrecy.”

Innocence Can Be Difficult to Prove

One major difference for those wrongly convicted of sexual abuse compared with the Post Office workers is that they are even less likely to be exonerated. Those wrongly accused of sexual abuse face unique obstacles in proving their innocence.  Dr Ros Burnett has written a detailed account of the barriers experienced in her article ‘Why it is too easy for innocent people to be wrongly accused of sexual abuse‘. One surprising fact is that the complainant doesn’t need to provide corroboration of the allegation for a court to find the defendant guilty. As there is usually no forensic evidence in historical cases the testimony of the complainant is often all that is needed to convict someone. Because lack of corroboration of an allegation doesn’t stop someone being convicted, and the fact that records and witnesses that could support a defendant may no longer be available in the case of a historical case, innocence can be very difficult to prove.

The Pain Can Last a Very Long Time

Some of the post office workers have had to wait 20 years for justice. For example, Mr Shiju was dismissed from the Post Office in 2006 and has been offered a mere £12,000 in compensation. His case still continues. Our members have also suffered long term pain, to quote someone who had received a unanimous ‘not guilty’ verdict from the jury: “we are different, we are damaged and although the scars are fading slightly we cannot see a time that they will be completely gone”.

Brave Journalism Needed

The time is long overdue for a courageous journalist to investigate what has become a taboo subject, the possibility that some convicted sex offenders may actually be innocent. We also need a TV series like ‘Mr Bates versus the Post Office’, because very few are taking the plight of those wrongly accused of sexual abuse seriously. But who will step forward to the mark?

See also

The Suffering of the Wrongly Accused

Support for the Wrongly Accused

How to Cope with the Psychological Impact of a Wrongful Allegation

Why it is too easy for innocent people to be wrongly accused of sexual abuse