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The 555 subpostmasters who exposed the depth of the Post Office Horizon scandal could finally be fairly compensated.
It is nearly two decades since some lost everything at the hands of the Post Office after they were wrongly blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by its error-prone computer system. Despite a High Court case in 2019 proving that they were not top blame for the errors, the subpostmasters have still not received fair compensation.
In a Tweet, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) minister Paul Scully said he expects to make an announcement on compensation within a couple of weeks.
In reply to a question from one of the 555, former subpostmaster Christopher Head, Scully said: “All being well I should be able to announce something on this within a couple of weeks. We’ve been working closely with [solicitors] Freeths to have something that the 555 will find appropriate and that delivers for you as quickly as possible.”
The 555, members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), took the Post Office to the High Court in 2018 and were awarded £57.75m between them after the trial, but once legal costs were taken out, they were only left with £11m to share. This did not come close to repaying the money they were forced to pay the Post Office, never mind compensating them for their suffering.
Freeths is the legal firm which ran a successful group litigation against the Post Office for the 555 subpostmasters. The company has all the information and calculations about how much compensation each one should receive.
The government, which fully owns the Post Office, repeatedly said the compensation awarded after the High Court case was full and final. But the JFSA has campaigned to force the government to pay them fair compensation, and the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal saw its chair highlight the derisory compensation paid as a major concern.
In March this year, the government made a U-turn and began negotiating with the JFSA. The latest meeting between the JFSA and BEIS is due to take place this week.
But false promises have been made before. In a Zoom meeting between Scully, prime minister Boris Johnson and the scandal victims in May last year, one victim, Michael Rudkin, told Scully and Johnson: “It is totally unfair. I know you are looking at the legal term that it is a full and final settlement for the 555, but when you take out the legal expenses, most subpostmasters actually got less than the amounts they paid back that they were wrongly blamed for taking.”
Scully said: “I totally get that, and this is something we have to go away and think about. I want to do this as quickly as possible because you have waited long enough. We will work with you to get something that is fair and speedy.”
That was 14 months ago.
Rudkin’s family’s life was devastated by the actions of the government-owned Post Office. In 2000, Rudkin and his wife bought another Post Office in Ibstock, Leicestershire, and retained the Barnsley branch up until the middle of 2004.
Rudkin said there were problems balancing the accounts and, in 2009, after experiencing unexplained account shortfalls, Susan was convicted of stealing over £40,000 from their branch in Ibstock, based on evidence from the Horizon system, which the High Court judgment said could not be trusted.
She received a 12-month suspended sentence and was ordered to complete 300 hours of unpaid work and placed on an electronically monitored curfew for six months.
The couple lost hundreds of thousands of pounds as a result of the errors and were forced to use their family home as a bed and breakfast to pay the bills.
Mrs Rudkin is one of 75 former subpostmasters who have so far had their convictions, which were based on Horizon evidence, quashed.
Computer Weekly first reported on problems with the system in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters (see timeline of articles below).
The Post Office always denied that Horizon could be to blame for the shortfalls, while subpostmasters and their families had their lives turned upside down, with criminal prosecutions for hundreds and many more financially ruined.