A former British post office manager broke down in tears as he gave evidence to a public inquiry on Monday into an IT scandal that resulted in hundreds of wrongful convictions in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK legal history.
"We lost utterly everything, this was due to the Post Office," said Baljit Sethi, 69, who ran a local post office for over 20 years at Romford, east of London.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 sub-postmasters and mistresses were unfairly convicted of theft, fraud or false accounting because of a faulty computer system.
The former postmaster told the inquiry that he had successfully repelled armed robbers on several occasions. But as the new IT accounting system added up the office figures wrongly, resulting in inexplicable losses, his repeated attempts to raise the alarm with the Post Office went unanswered.
Sethi, who was not convicted but had his contract terminated, described how the experience had ruined his retirement plans to help his family. "We were on the verge of bankruptcy, of losing everything we had worked for over the past 25 years," he said, adding that at one stage he considered committing suicide.
"People who used to hold us in high esteem thought we were thieves," he went on. "People who used to stop us in the street to say hello, turned their face the other way... and we had no way to prove it or tell anybody that this is wrong."
Many other managers suffered the same fate, or worse. Some were sent to prison, lost jobs, or declared bankruptcy.
The defective computer accounting system, called Horizon and developed by the Japanese technology firm Fujitsu, was installed in local Post Office branches in 1999.
Despite receiving dozens of complaints, the Post Office maintained for years that data from Horizon was reliable and accused branch managers of dishonesty when the system showed money was missing.
The Post Office, whose sole shareholder is the UK government, is the nationwide network of branches offering postal and financial services. The vast majority are run by franchise partners or sub-postmasters and mistresses as independent businesses.
In April 2021, the Court of Appeal overturned the wrongful convictions of 39 people who ran local post offices. Those who had their names cleared included Harjinder Butoy, who was convicted of stealing about £200,000 (€239,000) and jailed for more than three years in 2008.
So far, 72 people have had their names cleared.
Lawyer Jason Beer told the hearing on Monday that the inquiry was not about “an IT project gone wrong” but about the devastating impact the failures had on those it affected.
“Lives were ruined, families torn apart, families were made homeless or destitute. Reputations were destroyed,” Beer said.
The inquiry was "about people whose mental and physical health has been impacted, people whose marriages and partnerships have deteriorated or failed, about people who thought about taking their own lives and in some cases took their own lives,” he said.
The inquiry will hear from those most affected by the IT failings and examine the conduct of the Post Office, as well as whether affected workers have been rightly compensated.
The Post Office has apologised for the scandal and Fujitsu has vowed to provide full, transparent information -- but no one at either organisation has been held accountable.