The chair of the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal has raised questions over the fairness of the current compensation scheme for victims.
Former High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams said he was “reasonably unhappy” at the apparent “loophole” that prevents those who were acquitted of the false charges against them from pursuing a case against the Post Office themselves.
Some 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses (SPMs) were prosecuted for theft, fraud and false accounting between 2000 and 2014 over faulty information from the Horizon IT system, which identified incorrect accounting errors at branches across the UK.
Some were jailed, many went bankrupt trying to repay money they did not owe, and others even took their own lives before their names could be cleared.
In 2019, a group of 555 SPMs successfully challenged the Post Office over the Horizon system in the High Court.
In December, the government opened a fund worth nearly £700m to foot the bill for compensation, but the original 555 were not able to claim from this because of their settlement with the Post Office, and say they are out of pocket due to legal costs.
Inquiry chair asks if compensation scheme is ‘fair’
Commenting on the support package, Sir Wyn said: “I want to understand whether the interim scheme, which is apparently being applied as we are going along, so to speak, is being fair to everyone who might take advantage of it.”
Sir Wyn’s interjection came after the inquiry heard evidence from Susan Hazzleton, 68, who was prosecuted for theft in 2001.
The former sub-postmistress, who had run a branch in Chelmsford, Essex, since 1995, was accused of stealing £300 by auditors, despite her previously paying £4,300 to cover incorrect account imbalances identified by Horizon.
Mrs Hazzleton was suspended, her shop was closed and about six weeks later she was arrested for theft, although the prosecution dropped the case 18 months later.
“It was totally unbelievable,” she said, adding that she felt the way the process was handled was “cruel” with the trial twice postponed and then finally cancelled the night before the rescheduled date.
Mrs Hazzleton said: “I thought I was going to go to prison because I’d been told I could get a custodial sentence.
“Every day that week [when the trial was scheduled] I was physically sick because I was frightened.
“I was frightened for me, I was frightened for my family and I hated being in that position.”
Victim has faced financial ruin ever since
Despite being acquitted, Mrs Hazzleton lost her company pension and told the inquiry she has faced financial difficulties ever since.
She said: “The salary stopped. I had no money. We were just left.
“It was awful. It was like somebody had pulled a rug from under you.”
Mrs Hazzleton received £15,000 from the Post Office as part of the group action in 2019, which has prevented her from claiming interim compensation payments from the government.
Casting doubt over her ineligibility for the scheme, Sir Wyn said: “It appears to me that there may be a loophole, or a lacuna, in the sense that those who have been convicted and had their convictions quashed are entitled to an interim payment but those who may have been acquitted may fall into a hole, so to speak.
“I must say I’m reasonably unhappy about that state of affairs given that their rights to sue for malicious prosecution have been preserved apparently.”
Sub-postmistress told she was ‘only one’ with Horizon problems
Mrs Hazzleton told the inquiry she repeatedly rang the Post Office helpline for Horizon issues as shortfalls in her accounts began to “snowball” in 2000 but got little assistance.
Instead, she says, she was told that she was the only person having problems.
Asked by Sky News if she believes there was a cover-up, she said: “Yes I do, because for one reason, and this has become a common thread, as in my case, they said I was the only one who was going through that problem.
“That no one else is having issues with their computer.
“Hopefully we can get to the bottom of who knew what was happening, why it was happening, why it wasn’t picked up by the Post Office audits.”
The inquiry, which is expected to run for the rest of the year, is looking into whether the Post Office knew about faults in the IT system and will also ask how staff were made to take the blame.
On Wednesday, a group of cross-party MPs called on the government to fully compensate all victims.