UK's Post Office Scandal: An Ethics Lesson for Tech Adoption

An IT expert involved in the case imparts advice on auditing your company's software

Ben Wodecki, Jr. Editor

March 7, 2024

5 Min Read
Photo of Nick Wallis and Jason Coyne
From left: Nick Wallis and Jason Coyne

At a Glance

  • The Post Office Scandal saw 900 innocent workers accused of stealing due to a software flaw.
  • One of the technical experts who found the flaws said businesses need to better understand their tech and data.

Between 1999 and 2015, the U.K. wrongly prosecuted for theft about 900 staff who managed local post offices. An IT expert who later exonerated them pointed at accounting software as the culprit − but only years after one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history.

Jason Coyne is the digital forensics consultant who was tasked with examining the Horizon software during a civil case brought by the Post Office against one of its branch managers in the early 2000s. He found red flags all over the system but his view never made the light of day.

Over a decade later, he was brought in as an expert witness after wrongfully accused staff sought to quash their convictions.

Post office staff had repeatedly said Horizon was faulty but both the Post Office and the software provider Fujitsu denied their claims. Coyne, speaking at Tech Show London, said it took him and other IT experts over 5,000 hours to crack Horizon and determined it was faulty.

This week, the Post Office was deemed “not fit for purpose” by a cross-party group of MPs.

Fujitsu’s global chief executive, Takahito Tokita, has apologized, while its Europe boss, Paul Patterson, has said the company has a "moral obligation" to help compensate the wrongly accused.

The case is a cautionary tale for companies that have complete confidence in their technology, turning a blind eye to red flags raised by their own staff. Coyne offered advice on how businesses can avoid such a tragic gaff that led to wrong imprisonment, staff bankruptcies – and even suicide.

The scandal explained

In 1999, the government-owned Post Office brought in software by Fujitsu to automate its accounting system.

Back then, many local post offices were run by sub-postmasters – staff who were tasked with inputting the financial transactions of their branch. Before Horizon, sub-postmasters were agents of the post office and did the accounts themselves. Horizon was meant to modernize the Post Office, helping streamline the accounting process.

When Horizon came in, the Post Office and Fujitsu took control of the accounts but the sub-postmasters were still liable for any discrepancies.

Horizon would often report larger amounts from those of the sub-postmasters to the tune of thousands of pounds. The Post Office and Fujitsu assumed staff were stealing and began legal action against those sub-postmasters despite many of them saying the system was faulty.

The Post Office had more confidence in the accounting software than its own staff - and as a result, it had no incentive to look for technology flaws. The fallout was severe: Many were wrongly imprisoned, went bankrupt, beset by stress-related health issues – or killed themselves.

In 2017, a group of around 500 sub-postmasters took legal action against the Post Office, claiming it was Horizon that was at fault. They would receive $74 million (£58 million) in compensation but this amount ended up being eaten by legal fees.

During his involvement in the civil case, Coyne penned a report detailing the issues but the case was settled before his findings were published in court. He added that Fujitsu, at the behest of the Post Office, tried to discredit his report but he stood by his findings.

Lessons for business

To avoid similar mishaps, Coyne advised businesses to let staff speak up when something is not right. Many Post Office employees who pointed out Horizon’s flaws were silenced as Fujitsu stood by the software.

Coyne advised organizations to ensure they understood the risks up and down the chain. He said the Post Office did not know where Fujitsu's roles and responsibilities ended and where theirs started.

“People did not know who to speak to, there was just a default position that the sub-postmasters are thieves and the system is infallible.”

Coyne also said businesses should never take what he called an “indefensible position” with their technologies.

He said that when Horizon went live, it had an SLA, or Service Level Agreement, of 99.6%. This covers the expected level of service – and how often it would operate reliably.

“That meant that there was an acceptance that 0.4% of all branch accounts could be wrong, and the system would still be working in SLA,” Coyne said. “That actually means that the system went live accepting that each month 50 postmasters won’t be able to reconcile their accounts.”

The Post Office had denied that error logs existed. Coyne and other tech professionals had to fight to get access to those logs to show there were issues with the system.

“The proposition that the system doesn't have faults is absolute nonsense,” he added.

Coyne advised that organizations need to be prepared for discovery. He suggested creating a data map so firms can effectively trace all of the data in their organization.

“The Post Office didn't know that and got tripped up. They didn't know that they migrated from an Exchange version to a 365 version … lots of different organizations will make similar mistakes.”

Why now?

The Post Office Scandal as it is known is at the center of the public eye in the U.K. at the moment thanks to a TV drama.

ITV’s “Mr Bates vs. the Post Office” caught the public’s attention, with many demanding more action be done to exonerate those wrongfully accused.

In the wake of the drama, the government announced plans to quash convictions and provide adequate compensation to those affected, with former Post Office executives returning awards and cash bonuses.

A consultant to the drama was Nick Wallis, who also authored a book on the scandal. At Tech Show London, he said the TV show was evidence of the media “working in a functioning democracy.”

“The drama created the empathy with the audience, which put it up in the public's agenda and the politicians took over and reacted accordingly.”

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About the Author(s)

Ben Wodecki

Jr. Editor

Ben Wodecki is the Jr. Editor of AI Business, covering a wide range of AI content. Ben joined the team in March 2021 as assistant editor and was promoted to Jr. Editor. He has written for The New Statesman, Intellectual Property Magazine, and The Telegraph India, among others. He holds an MSc in Digital Journalism from Middlesex University.

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