Postmasters caught up in one of the UK’s biggest miscarriages of justice in recent legal history due to a faulty Post Office IT system are still suffering because compensation has been too slow to reach them, an inquiry heard on Thursday.
Sir Wyn Williams, chair of the Post Office Horizon public inquiry, called a hearing on Thursday due to concerns that former managers of Post Office branches had been waiting too long for money to be paid out by three different compensation schemes set up by the Post Office and the UK government.
Post Office’s faulty Horizon computer system led to hundreds of people being wrongly prosecuted for theft between 2000 and 2013, in what MPs have called the biggest miscarriage of justice in recent legal history.
The High Court ruled in 2019 that the IT system contained bugs, errors and defects that had caused financial discrepancies in thousands of postmasters’ branch accounts. As a result of the ruling, 83 people have had their criminal convictions overturned and the government set up a public inquiry, which started earlier this year.
On Wednesday, the UK government announced a new compensation scheme for the 555 postmasters who brought the landmark High Court case in 2019.
Interim payments worth £16.4mn have been made so far to 423 people, the inquiry was told.
The Post Office had already set up a “historic shortfall scheme” to compensate postmasters who were not part of the High Court lawsuit but had been forced to repay thousands of pounds of “missing money” to the Post Office due to computer system errors.
Compensation offers have been made to 2,200 people so far under this scheme totalling £70.8mn, the Post Office said. A third Post Office scheme offering payments to wrongly prosecuted postmasters has made interim payments and other damages awards of around £11.5mn to 77 people.
On Thursday, lawyers for the postmasters told the inquiry that many continue to suffer “grave” difficulties in accessing compensation through the three schemes — particularly those who were driven into bankruptcy by the scandal.
Sam Stein KC, for law firm Howe & Co, which represents more than 150 postmasters, told the hearing that “ongoing suffering is happening right now”.
He said that one postmaster, Heather Williams from Birkenhead, Merseyside, in north-west England, had received nothing so far but has “very little money” and her electricity and gas accounts are £2,000 in arrears.
She does not “heat her home and only eats every other day, often only a Pot Noodle”, Stein said, adding that she recently had a bad fall and had been taken to hospital “because she was tired and weak from not having eaten”.
Stein said that another postmaster, Faisal Aziz, who has five children, had received an interim payment but had said this would “only keep his family out of trouble for a few months”, noting that his children have started to repair their school shoes with glue to save money.
Kate Gallafent KC for the Post Office said that the state-owned body reiterated “the importance of ensuring that postmasters receive timely and fair compensation for the failings associated with the Horizon IT system.”
Nicholas Chapman, barrister for the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said the government was “committed to ensuring that all affected receive full and fair compensation as quickly as possible” but added the outstanding cases “are the most complex and most difficult to resolve”.
The Post Office inquiry has just finished its second phase looking at the design of the Horizon IT system, with four further phases scheduled. The inquiry is unlikely to finish until 2024.