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Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University. He is the author of an award-winning biography of John Maynard Keynes and The Machine Age: An Idea, A History, A Warning.

A new TV drama has brought to light one of the greatest injustices in the history of Britain, prompting a long-overdue public reckoning and raising hopes for much-needed institutional accountability.

The Post Office scandal, as it is known in Britain, involves the wrongful prosecution and conviction of more than 900 postal workers for theft and fraud between 1999 and 2015, owing to faulty software. Although the British government has announced plans to exonerate and compensate those who were convicted, the fact that it took more than 20 years and a hit TV show to spark public outrage reflects poorly on the rule of law and protection of civil liberties in Britain.

The plot of Mr. Bates vs The Post Office, a four-part ITV drama, could have been lifted from a dystopian novel. In 1999, the British Post Office introduced Horizon, a new accounting-software package developed by the Japanese company Fujitsu. From the very beginning, sub-postmasters – self-employed individuals operating postal outlets, typically within small general stores – complained that the new system was falsely reporting shortfalls. Instead of fixing the bugs, management prosecuted hundreds of workers for fraud and embezzlement. Many faced financial ruin, and others were jailed; at least four died by suicide.

Amid growing media scrutiny, the Post Office insisted that Horizon was reliable.

Today, we know that the company knew about the system’s flaws as early as 2003, yet sub-postmasters continued to be prosecuted for financial misconduct until 2015.

It was not until Mr. Bates vs the Post Office began airing on Jan. 1 that the government sprang into action. On Jan. 10, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced emergency legislation to overturn the convictions of 980 sub-postmasters, offering them compensation packages ranging between £75,000 and £600,000 (about $128,000 to $1.03-million). Paula Vennells, the Post Office’s former chief executive officer, has returned her Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) honour and may be required to repay £2.2-million ($3.8-million) in bonuses.

In contrast to authoritarian regimes, the power of governments in liberal democracies is checked by constitutions and an independent judiciary. But the Post Office scandal underscores the degree to which the systems designed to hold the powerful to account in Britain have eroded.

Judicial independence is a prime example. While the British government’s recent decision to exonerate hundreds of wrongfully convicted sub-postmasters has been rightly praised, the choice to do so through legislation raises significant concerns about the judiciary’s autonomy. As former attorney-general Dominic Grieve pointed out, the legislation appears to go “over the heads” of senior judges.

But the government’s intervention also highlights the poor state of the judiciary. As hundreds of victims appealed their convictions, the already struggling Criminal Cases Review Commission – the body responsible for investigating possible miscarriages of justice – was overwhelmed by the volume of cases. Consequently, just 93 convictions have been overturned so far.

The gradual erosion of resources within the British criminal-justice system has exacerbated the problem. A severe shortage of judges, staff and lawyers is fuelling growing backlogs in every court across the country. Given the current overload, reviewing the Post Office convictions individually would take many years.

But the erosion of accountability goes beyond funding shortfalls. Parliamentary committees of inquiry, another mechanism intended to uphold institutional integrity, essentially exist to delay addressing official misconduct. As columnist Juliet Samuel recently observed, these committees often function as a way to secure “valuable time for outrage to be neutered, blunders nullified, and villainy sterilized.”

Although it is a state-owned corporation, the Post Office has operational independence. Consequently, it enjoys neither robust state oversight nor true freedom to manage its own affairs. Its board comprises independent directors and government-appointed functionaries whose role is to assure ministers that the company operates in the public interest.

This minimal government oversight enabled the Post Office to initiate private prosecutions, sidestepping the police and public prosecutors. Between 1999 and 2012, it brought 735 successful prosecutions against its own postmasters for breach of contract, incentivizing in-house investigators and legal firms with bonuses tied to the amount of money they “recovered.” While prosecutors were still obligated to establish the reliability of computer-generated evidence of fraud in court, this requirement was effectively undermined by two significant misconceptions.

First, the British appeal system operates on the assumption that judges and juries are infallible and that only guilty people are convicted. In the context of the Horizon malfunction, the courts were instructed to regard the system’s data as correct unless clear evidence suggested otherwise. In other words, the software and its developers were deemed innocent until proven guilty, while those facing prosecution were treated as guilty unless they could prove their innocence.

The second misconception is that cutting costs enhances efficiency. Automated systems like Horizon are often touted as cost-effective, because they require no food, clothing, housing or entertainment, and they work around the clock, without breaks, and do not go on strike. Fujitsu’s faulty software demonstrates the dangers of this kind of thinking.

Britain is just the latest example of a Western democracy veering toward a legal system in which innocence is no longer presumed but must be proven. The Post Office scandal also illustrates the risk of authoritarian rule through negligence. Whether we like it or not, our freedoms depend on the dedication and vigilance of determined people committed to exposing miscarriages of justice. Without them, our vaunted democratic institutions invariably fall short.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2024.

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