LONDON -- A public inquiry opened in London on Monday to examine the wrongful convictions of hundreds of British postal workers who were accused of theft, fraud or false accounting because of a faulty computer system.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 postal workers were wrongfully accused, with some convicted and sent to prison. The mistakes represented one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history.
The failures were blamed on a defective computer accounting system called Horizon that was installed in local Post Office branches in 1999. The system was supplied by the Japanese technology firm Fujitsu. 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.
In April, 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 pounds ($270,000) and jailed for more than three years in 2008.
Lawyer Jason Beer told the hearing 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.
Baljit Sethi, the first witness to give evidence Monday, was asked to cover 17,000 pounds after the computer system showed cash missing.
“I knew there was something wrong with the system but no one wanted to know that,” said Sethi, 69, who was never charged. “I was down and out, I contemplated suicide, but I thought no, that’s the easy way out, what about my family and my children?”
“People in our community believed we had been robbing from the Post Office," he added.
The inquiry will hear from others affected by the IT failings and examine the conduct of the Post Office, as well as whether affected workers have been properly compensated.