UK Court Overturns 39 Convictions Of Post Office Workers Caused By Buggy Software

from the shittiest-skynet-ever dept

Never underestimate the power of technology to destroy lives. Flawed software used for the last 20 years by the UK postal service resulted in dozens of wrongful criminal convictions which are only just now being overturned.

Judges have quashed the convictions of 39 former postmasters after the UK's most widespread miscarriage of justice.

They were convicted of stealing money, with some imprisoned, after the Post Office installed the Horizon computer system in branches.

[...]

The clearing of the names of 39 people follows the overturning of six other convictions in December, This means more people have been affected than in any other miscarriage of justice in the UK.

The notoriously buggy software debuted in 1999. Apparently it was unable to do math properly, resulting in reported cash shortages that actually weren't happening. Some employees attempted to make up these faux shortfalls with their own money by digging into savings or remortgaging their homes. Rather than address the problematic software, the UK Post Office went into prosecutorial overdrive, bringing cases against employees at the rate of one per week… for fourteen years straight. A total of 736 employees were prosecuted by the Post Office from 2000 to 2014.

And yet, the UK Post Office continued to rely on software that was actively destroying lives.

Marriages broke down, and courts have heard how some families believe the stress led to health conditions, addiction and premature deaths.

"The past nine years have been hellish and a total nightmare. This conviction has been a cloud over my life," said former Oxfordshire sub-postmaster Vipinchandra Patel, whose name was cleared late last year.

Seema Misra was pregnant with her second child when she was convicted of theft and sent to jail in 2010. She said that she had been "suffering" for 15 years as a result of the saga.

By the end of 2019, the Post Office had agreed to settle claims brought by 555 employees. And now the last of the wrongful convictions have been overturned. But, so far, no one at the Post Office or Fujitsu (the software developer) has been held accountable for the nearly 20-year run of destruction they oversaw.

That could change in the near future. The UK court seems completely unimpressed with the Post Office's actions (or lack thereof).

At the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office "knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon" and had a "clear duty to investigate" the system's defects.

But the Post Office "consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable" and "effectively steamrolled over any sub-postmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy", the judge added.

Sure, everyone at the Post Office seems pretty apologetic now. But that's after 15 years of ignoring the problem and choosing to believe software rather than the people hired to do the job. Tech can make things better and increase productivity, but it's rarely flawless and generally shouldn't be considered more trustworthy than the people who have to interact with it on a daily basis.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: criminal convictions, software, uk, uk postal service


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Thread


  • identicon
    David, 7 May 2021 @ 9:40am

    I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

    It's bookkeeping. At the end of the day, the numbers (incoming and outgoing expenses) add up or they don't. If you prosecute someone who doubts the numbers, one would expect that you have to put the numbers down and prove the mismatch. "Mr Smith says so" or "our computer program says so" should have about the same weight in court.

    If your bookkeeping is so contorted that you have to believe a computer without ability of verification, you'd be laughed out of any audit.

    So there's something fishy here beyond the software.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 9:59am

      Re: I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

      IIRC when I read about this before, Fujitsu was able to modify data without leaving fingerprints while at the same time the postmasters were claiming it was impossible so thats why all of these people were guilty.

      Its the ever popular we bought this, they promised it was perfect, so any fault is outside of this. See also: Expanding the data scooped up on citizens while missing plots planned in the open. Then answer is always more spying, not demanding better results from whats already available.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        David, 7 May 2021 @ 11:03am

        Re: Re: I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

        Here cash registers are required to leave a paper trail. There is no modifying data without leaving fingerprints because that would make the taxman very angry.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 10:23am

      Re: I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

      I learned the old programming from the 1970's.
      Deeming ANY Program perfect is asking for allot of problems.
      Consider all these people, and the SAME problem happening all over the system and STILL, not looking at what was recently changed.
      Do you think they fired allt he bookkeepers, BEFORE proving the software? Or just fire people off hand, Just because?

      The computer did it, and the computer is never wrong.
      (stick a What up your Where?)
      Then come the ideas on UPDATES, and changes in the software. What are the odds they never updated/changed/Adjusted things in the software. The English Money system is abit strange.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 4:32pm

        Re: Re: I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

        Well, to play PO's advocate for a moment... Fujitsu deployed the system in 1999, due to the Post's concerns that they were losing money due to employees. When the system came out, it proved they were correct, so they deployed it across the entire country, and found a continually predictable number of employees were reportedly skimming.

        By the time 2010 came around, nothing had recently changed. The system was still finding skimmers at roughly 1 per month. The odd bit is that by this time, it had been in place for 11 years, and you had employees who had been around for 20 years, 11 of which the system was in place, suddenly running afoul of it. And yet every time, the software was considered infallible, as was the process for using the system.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          ECA (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 8:38pm

          Re: Re: Re: I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

          lets see?
          3 per month is the average and tey could point at anyone.
          Predictable? thats the worst thing.
          1 per month? the avg says 3+ per month.

          NEVER depend on software until its had a 3-7th revision..
          ASK ANY GAMER.,

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Whoever, 7 May 2021 @ 1:39pm

      Re: I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

      It's not as simple as you suggest.

      Someone brings in an article that they want the Post Office to deliver. They pay the postmaster, but what does the postmaster do? Perhaps they run the letter through a franking machine, or they print a label with the postage on it.

      Where is the data that shows the franking and label printing activity stored? Presumably by the faulty software.

      Also, the sub-post office receives bulk shipments of stamps to sell. What tracks the value of the stamps that the sub-post office has received? Presumably the same software. Yes, a vigilant sub-postmaster would be able to check the software against the physical stamps, but probably, once accused, their sub-post office would be shut down, so they would not be able to make such comparisons.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 11 May 2021 @ 12:38pm

        Re: Re: I have a problem figuring out what took so long.

        Where is the data that shows the franking and label printing activity stored? Presumably by the faulty software.

        The point is that the worker was supposed to take that 10 pound note and put it in the drawer in exchange for the service, and did so. So why is it possible to prosecute workers for taking money, when the money isn't actually missing?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    LACanuck (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 9:59am

    Crap. I should get to writing some tests for this application I'm developing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nicola Lane (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 10:10am

    There will be more wrongful convictions overturned

    There are already another 38 already at the Court of Appeal, another 20 definately being reviewed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission - and the Post Office is busy contacting another 540 who need thier cases looking into. At this point we should assume that if you were prosecuted by the post office then there might not even have been a crime - let alone one that you were guilty of!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 8 May 2021 @ 1:07pm

      Re: There will be more wrongful convictions overturned

      And reported today (BBC):
      The PO has applied to the court to vacate another 200 convictions, and asked for anyone else who thinks they are affected to come forward.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nathan F (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 10:40am

    If you are convicting that many people of the same kind of crime, don't you think it might be a good idea to take a closer look at the system and process that are involved?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 2:29pm

      Re:

      This.

      Also, the courts continually accepting this evidence.

      Every postmaster a theif!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 5:28pm

        Re: Re:

        How does "money's gone, must've been the Postmaster" get counted as "beyond a reasonable doubt" at least 39 times? Even if they could prove the money was missing, what about the employees in higher and lower positions?

        Yes, something else is very wrong here.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 10:56am

    Oh, really?

    And now the last of the wrongful convictions have been overturned.

    FTFA:

    The Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates potential miscarriages of justice, is reviewing another 22 cases.

    Also from the article:

    There were more than 700 prosecutions based on Horizon evidence. The commission and the Post Office are asking anyone else who believes their conviction to be unsafe to come forward.

    (translation: they don't know, and are afraid to simply review ALL of them.)

    555 people settled (of which, 75% or so went to the lawyers). 51 cases were sent back to court (45 overturned, 3 affirmed, 3 unknown, perhaps still in progress). And untold numbers of civil suits to follow.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 11:56am

    Remember this is the nation that had a problem with the idea of clearing Turing long after his death, so as not to send the wrong message.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 12:46pm

    WTF? This sounds like the plot of a B movie. Like that Bruce Willis film where an autistic kid deciphers some CIA encryption hidden in a puzzle book and the brain trust of villains thinks the best way to fix the problem is to murder the kid and cover it up.

    Who ever knew stupid Hollywood plots were so close to reality after all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 May 2021 @ 3:30pm

    Wait til you find out that the execs at post office HQ used the bug to steal 100s of millions of pounds from the government, hiding and obfusticating the data in the masses of buggy values.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Retsibsi (profile), 7 May 2021 @ 4:21pm

    The problem here is that people are confusing the civil cases with the criminal (appeal) cases. The initial civil case ended up going so badly that the Post Office, realising just how badly their defense was going (it was being heard in several stages), tried to have the judge removed. The Court of Appeal took one look at that application to remove the judge and tore the Post Office apart. When the eventual judgment in the civil case did come out it was about the most damning judgment there could have been. For those who think I'm exaggerating I suggest they read it. Once that came out it was blatantly apparent that the criminal cases simply didn't stand up to scrutiny, and worse that the Post Office had failed to disclose the defects in the system when they knew they had to when prosecuting. There are serious questions being raised about the conduct of the Post Office's lawyers who conducted the prosecutions (the Post Office gets to carry out its own prosecutions), let alone senior management of whom some are still in management positions today, if not in the Post Office then elsewhere. However, one or two are beginning to understand that companies don't want to be associated with them anymore and resignations are beginning to appear. (Not necessarily entirely voluntary)
    Oh, and apologetic? Yeah right... want to see what they offer by way of compensation? Like the civil case it'll likely be minimal at best

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Zane (profile), 9 May 2021 @ 1:46am

    Wider issues

    There's a wider issue with the British Criminal Justice System. The focus is on funding prosecution, not defending citizens accused of a crime. Investigators have a bias, as they are looking for evidence that proves guilt as opposed to look for anything that shows innocence. Many cannot afford an adequate defense, computer forensics would have been needed, but the defence should have had the same access and resources as the prosecution. The right of appeal is sadly not available to many, particularly if someone has offered a guilty plea to reduce a sentence.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories
.

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.