Post Office scandal: Wrongful convictions of sub-postmasters is a vital warning for the Computer Age – Scotsman comment

To be falsely accused and convicted of a crime is one of the worst things that can happen to any honest, decent person.

Former Post Office workers celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London yesterday after 39 had convictions for fraud, theft and false accounting overturned (Picture: Yui Mok/PA)

The stress and the worry, the human relationships broken, the lost years of what could have been happy life, the unrelenting unfairness can crush the spirit of even the strongest and most confident individual.

And, without doubt, the wrongful convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting of 39 former sub-postmasters – some of whom were jailed for years – is one of the worst examples of the modern age.

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Sam Stein QC, who represented five sub-postmasters who would have been regarded as pillars of their communities before their reputations were unjustly tarnished, told the Court of Appeal last month that it was “the longest and most extensive affront to the justice system in living memory”.

At the heart of the problem was the Post Office’s flawed Horizon accounting system. However, as the sub-postmasters were cleared, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office had known there were “serious issues about the reliability of Horizon” but “consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable” and “effectively steamrolled over any sub-postmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy”.

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The blood boils to think of people’s lives so blighted with such cruel disregard of their protestations of innocence given what was known about the Horizon system.

Our lives are becoming increasingly computerised and many of us will have come up against the unthinking intransigence and infuriating glitches of automated systems.

We know they can go wrong – they are, after all, only as good as the programmers who make them – but there is an alarming tendency among some to invest software with near-superhuman qualities.

However, even if “the computer says no”, the correct answer can still be yes and we need to remember that as we travel further into an algorithm-driven future that is already affecting the news and political information we see on social media, credit card ratings and many other important aspects of daily life.

The appalling scapegoating of honest people by a business so out of touch that it trusted a flawed system over its own people must live long in the memory as a warning to anyone who puts too much trust in all-too-human automation.

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