'Worst miscarriage of justice': Post Office scandal tore families apart, inquiry hears

14 February 2022, 16:02 | Updated: 14 February 2022, 16:07

Baljit Sethi, with wife Anjana, arrives at the International Dispute Resolution Centre in London
Baljit Sethi, with wife Anjana, arrives at the International Dispute Resolution Centre in London. Picture: Alamy

By Patrick Grafton-Green

The Post Office scandal was "the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history", ruining lives and tearing families apart, a top lawyer has said.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

It came as a tearful sub-postmaster, Baljit Sethi, became the first witness to address the public inquiry as it got under way in central London on Monday.

He was one of more than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses (SPMs) who were prosecuted between 2000 and 2014 based on information from the Horizon system, installed and maintained by Fujitsu.

READ MORE: PM urges Putin to step back from 'edge of precipice' amid 'dangerous' Ukraine situation

READ MORE: Met Police Federation has 'no faith' in Sadiq Khan after 'public ousting' of Cressida Dick

However, in December 2019, a High Court judge ruled that Horizon's system contained a number of "bugs, errors and defects" and there was a "material risk" that shortfalls in Post Office branch accounts were caused by the system.

Jason Beer QC, counsel to the inquiry, said today: "Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were made homeless and destitute.

"Reputations were destroyed, not least because the crimes which the men and women were convicted all involved acting dishonestly.

"People who were important, respected and integral part of the local communities that they served were in some cases shunned.

"A number of men and women sadly died before the state publicly recognised that they were wrongly convicted."

Mr Sethi, who was wrongly accused of false accounting, told an inquiry how he was left to pick up the bill of £17,000 due to flaws within the Post Office system.

The 69-year-old and his wife Anjana, 67, who have three children, initially ran a branch near Romford in Essex from 1983.

Mr Sethi cried as he told how running it had been the "the best time" of his life as he was popular in the community.

He told the inquiry: "We didn't take a single penny from the Post Office our entire life and today I'm sitting in front of you saying that we stole from the Post Office."

It was heard that in 2001, Mr Sethi took on another branch in Brentwood, which after one year showed a hole in the accounts of £17,000, which the couple were asked to cover out of their own pocket.

Mr Sethi, who was never charged, told the inquiry he tried to communicate with the head office in Chelmsford, after noticing a problem with the system.

He broke down in tears as he went on to say: "I was the only man who ran the Post Office seven days a week.

"I used to open it at 8am and shut at 8pm.

"I was the only Post Office in the country running all seven days."

Mr Sethi, whose contract was terminated, added: "I knew there was something wrong with the system but no-one wanted to know that."

Dozens of SPMs have had criminal convictions overturned.

The inquiry, which is expected to run for the rest of this year, will look into whether the Post Office knew about faults in the IT system and will also ask how staff were made to take the blame.