January 15, 2024
One of the largest miscarriages of justice in British history, the Post Office scandal has once again been thrust into the attention of mainstream media, with lawyers at the heart of the case.

Why Has The Scandal Re-entered The Public Consciousness?

The Post Office scandal took place between 1999 and 2015. By 2019, the High Court had acknowledged the issue, and by 2020 the government had opened a public enquiry, leading to the process of overturning wrongful convictions (which is still ongoing).

However, mainstream attention was only captured in January 2024, when an ITV television drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, became a huge hit in the UK. The series follows the work of one of the wrongfully convicted individuals, Alan Bates (played by Toby Jones), in seeking to overturn this miscarriage of justice.

Since the show, a number of major outlets have picked up on the story, and the government has been pressured into taking action – Rishi Sunak is now promising new legislation designed to simplify and speed up the process of overturning these convictions.

Post Office Scandal: A Timeline Of Key Events

In 1994, the government (under social security minister Peter Lilley) had announced that they were looking to create a new system to improve the efficiency of transactions at the Post Office (namely the payments of benefits, which had long been seen as an area ripe for fraudulent activity when based on a paper system). The system was to be designed by a private contractor – eventually named as a subsidiary of Fujitsu. The development of the system went massively over budget and took far longer than expected, but the government were supposedly pressured by Fujitsu into signing off on the system.

In 1999, the new system (named Horizon) was rolled out across the UK. Almost immediately, subpostmasters (self-employed individuals running their branches on behalf of the Post Office) began to notice serious issues with the system. The output of numerous calculations in the Horizon system implied that money had gone missing. When the subpostmasters attempted to report this issue to their superiors, they were instead accused of misappropriating the funds themselves. It has also been claimed that subpostmasters experienced gaslighting, with senior staff informing them that no one else had reported similar issues (despite this not being the case). 

The Post Office then initiated an aggressive legal campaign to prosecute the numerous subpostmasters who had noted shortfalls in their systems. Altogether, over 900 individuals were prosecuted. While most cases went through local magistrates courts, a number of cases did move up to higher platforms (for example, Hamilton & Others v Post Office Ltd at the Court of Appeal, or Post Office Ltd v Castleton at the High Court – useful reading for interested aspiring lawyers).

In 2012, following repeated complaints of a miscarriage of justice, the Post Office were pressured into hiring Second Sight (an independent investigative firm) to look into the complaints further. A few reports were released between 2013 and 2015, which did raise some inconsistencies, though the Post Office largely brushed them off.

Following the Bates & Others v Post Office case in 2019, the subpostmasters involved announced that they had reached an out-of-court settlement with the Post Office. However, the vast majority of the funds raised (£46 million out of £57 million total) was taken via legal fees – only £20,000 was left for each individual (the government have since suggested in September 2023 that they will intervene to make up the difference).


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Impact Of The Post Office Scandal

The obvious outcome of these cases were the loss of jobs among subpostmasters. However, the Post Office’s aggressive pursuit of legal action led to far more of an impact than a simple loss of jobs.

Once a criminal conviction was obtained, they were known to go further by aiming for a Proceeds of Crime Act order. This allowed the Post Office to seize the assets of wrongfully convicted subpostmasters, leaving many bankrupt. A number of individuals were also convicted to prison sentences. 

Furthermore, the stress of these proceedings led to a huge strain on the mental wellbeing of the subpostmasters affected. As a result, there are records of numerous divorces and even, devastatingly, four suicides.

To this day, the majority of wrongfully convicted subpostmasters are awaiting their convictions to be overturned.

What Should Aspiring Lawyers Know?

The Post Office scandal contains a huge number of lessons for aspiring lawyers (whether solicitors or barristers) to observe and understand. These observations can be demonstrated during interviews or applications to legal opportunities such as training contracts or pupillages.

Anyone interested in the arena of public law generally should be especially interested in this case, since there has been widespread debate in the legal community over how the Post Office was allowed to pursue these convictions as a private prosecutor (despite essentially being a public body, and so perhaps needing to go through other avenues to obtain prosecutions). The select committee set up to examine the scandal stated, in its written report, that there may have been serious conflicts of interests and bias resulting from the power dynamics at play here.

Those interested in criminal law will also be interested to follow the case and understand why these judgments were reached. The sentencing processes in relation to prison sentences and Proceeds of Crime Act orders are especially interesting in this context. 

More generally, aspiring lawyers interested in work which feels fulfilling and maintains a purpose of human rights/access to justice should view this scandal as a really important event for bringing those issues into the public consciousness.

Key Takeaways

In short, the Post Office scandal is a massively important miscarriage of justice which has taken far too long to enter the arena of public discussion, and caused a great deal of pain in the process. While the process of securing justice is still ongoing, aspiring lawyers should follow the story and understand their responsibilities (both from a legal and even a moral perspective) as they begin their careers.

Commercial Awareness Questions

Check out our round-up of commercial awareness questions to challenge you to take a deeper look into this topic.

  • Discuss the ethical considerations raised by the Post Office scandal, particularly in terms of conflicts of interest and biases.
  • Consider the role of independent investigative firms like Second Sight. How could legal professionals navigate such challenges and ensure a fair legal process for their clients?
  • In what ways can media coverage affect legal cases and public perception, and how might this influence aspiring lawyers in their future careers?
  • What potential implications might the new legislation have on the legal landscape surrounding miscarriages of justice?


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