The Horizon Scandal is one of the most sweeping miscarriages of justice in recent British history. Horizon was a universal mandatory software provided to sub-post office franchises from the late 1990s by The Post Office Ltd.
The software giant Fujitsu provided the massive software system and contract. They said it was one of their biggest non-military contracts. Stakes were therefore high for both the Post Office and Fujitsu.It mattered to both that the system was believed to be a robust and reliable system. But this was far from the truth and both companies resorted to vicious tactics to hide the reality.
Ultimately, thousands of sub-post masters and mistresses would suffer significant shortfalls that would result in them having to throw their own money at covering discrepancies. Otherwise they faced allegations of dishonesty, fraud or theft.
Many suffered financial ruin, criminal prosecutions and convictions. If anyone queried the Horizon software, they were told they were the only ones with any problems.
Several people eventually took their own lives. All along, Fujitsu and their contacts within The Post Office knew that the system was faulty. Teams at Fujitsu’s base were regularly manipulating discrepancies in the data to try to hide faults.
The dramatisation of the scandal Mr Bates vs the Post Office has a well-paced screenplay by Gwyneth Hughes and is well directed by James Strong. It focuses on the over two decade long campaign by Alan Bates (Toby Jones), his well-grounded partner Suzanne (Julie Hesmondhalgh) and core members of the growing Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. Bates doggedly builds the group as he refuses to succumb to the lies and bullying of The Post Office.
We see the brutal impact of false prosecutions on victims such as Jo Hamilton (Monica Dolan), Lee Castleton (Will Mellor), Saman Kaur (Krupa Pattani), Pam Stubbs (Lesley Nicol) and former Sub-postmasters Federation rep Michael Rudkin (Shaun Dooley).
Bates steadily pulls more people into the Alliance and gives them the collective strength to campaign for justice –showing that they are not “the only ones”. This helps give Saman, despite huge strain on her mental health, the courage to change her plea in a court case and ultimately win her case.
This, together with revelations about the operations within Fujitsu, provided by Rudkin and later corroborated by an ex-Fujitsu employee, form the basis for the campaign’s growing political and legal challenges to the Post Office senior management’s gaslighting and stubborn insistence that Horizon is above reproach.
The campaign gains some publicity and political support, to the point where The Post Office are persuaded to pay lip service to the idea of some form of investigation then a “joint review” of cases. This is all political window dressing, however, and they find ways to frustrate the aims of the reviews.
Ironically, the real legal breakthrough only comes when some leading contract lawyers, hook the Alliance up with hedge fund speculators willing to fund a civil action, which they ultimately win. Both the real story and the drama highlight the brutal disregard big corporations have for ordinary people and it shows the power imbalance in the legal systems, geared up to favour those with the deepest pockets. But they also show the humanity of ordinary people and the hope and strength they can draw from acting collectively.
Full justice for the victims of the Horizon scandal, as well as its perpetrators, is still far away. Many of those involved feel they the bosses and the successive governments are dragging things out to ensure more victims will die before they see justice –but Alan Bates, Jo Hamilton and their fellow Alliance members show no signs of giving up.
The four episodes of Mr Bates vs the Post Office are now available on ITVX onlineOriginal post