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The UK Post Office Scandal

Like the majority of the UK population this week, I have been deeply moved by the ITV mini-series, “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” dramatising the true story of the biggest miscarriage of justice ever seen in the UK. I have been loosely following this story over the last 20 years, reading odd articles in Private Eye, seeing odd comments on social media, and noticing the occasional, rare headlines in mainstream media.  I have been vaguely aware for a long time that a handful of sub-postmasters had fallen foul of a glitch in a computer system installed in their post offices. Some had been prosecuted for theft, some had taken their own lives, and there was a campaign for justice. I then saw the BBC Panorama documentary in April 2022, which exposed the huge scale of what had happened, and this week’s ITV mini-series which fully captures the horror of the scandal.


The Horizon computer system, designed by Fujitsu, was first installed in UK post offices in 1999 and over subsequent years many sub-postmasters struggled with glitches in the system which caused errors in their accounting. Rather than provide support, both Fujitsu and the Post Office held firm to the line that it was either user error, or theft. According to the sub-postmasters’ contracts, they were personally liable for any shortfalls.  Many sub-postmasters found themselves repaying shortfalls of tens of thousands of pounds to the Post Office, re-mortgaging their homes, borrowing from credit cards and family until they ran out of available credit.  Others faced prosecution. Many were imprisoned. Some took their own lives to escape the stress and the shame. Many have since died without ever gaining justice or having their names cleared. There is currently a public inquiry into the scandal which a group of the sub-postmasters have campaigned for as part of their ongoing battle for justice and truth.


As a Clinical Psychologist and trauma expert, I was watching “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” whilst thinking about what happens when people experience such adverse events. I wondered to myself whether in fact, what had happened would constitute a triggering event for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The diagnostic criteria for PTSD requires a triggering event which involves “Exposure to actual or threatened death, or serious injury, or sexual assault…”, so without significant threat to life and limb, you cannot get PTSD. This is the definition which the legal profession relies on when considering personal injury claims for trauma. This definition has long troubled me as, although it is meant to be objectively determined, who decides how serious is serious? The definition also then precludes a diagnosis where the person has experienced extreme adversity but not actual or threatened death, or serious injury, but goes on, understandably, to have all the same symptoms as someone with PTSD. I am left with the question, does what happened in the Post Office scandal constitute a threat to life and limb? People certainly had their livelihoods threatened and went bankrupt and people did take their own lives, so the events were, arguably, life-threatening in a way.


When we are faced with a threatening situation, we typically have 3 main responses that activate automatically, these are fight, flight or freeze. In the “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” drama, these responses were all evident at different times in the characters portrayed.  Alan Bates, who has tirelessly led the campaign from the outset, was one of the earlier sub-postmasters affected. He refused to be brow beaten by his employers, stood up to them, and walked away from his post office rather than face prosecution for the ongoing problems. He and his wife had put their life savings into the business and lost the lot. Angered by his situation, and convinced he was in the right, he began to look for other cases and started a campaign to expose the problems with Horizon and the Post Office.  His work, over more than 20 years now, has led to the current public inquiry, and the vindication of many hundreds of sub-postmasters caught up in the scandal. Something tenacious about Alan Bates meant that when threatened in this way he naturally went into fight mode and has so far sustained this for over 20 years despite many knock backs and obstacles.


Other sub-postmasters were not able to fight in the way Alan Bates did. Flight is a very valid response to threat. If the wolves are prowling around, one way to survive is to run for the hills if you can.  Many sub-postmasters simply cut their losses and left the post office, often losing their life savings, even being bankrupted in the process, and making a new start elsewhere.  Sadly, an extreme version of the flight response in this case, was the four (that we know about) people who took their own lives as a result of the stress and the shame of what was happening to them. The intolerable pressure of being accused of something you know you have not done, being forced to “repay” many thousands of pounds, which you do not have, and facing the public humiliation of being prosecuted was, tragically, too much for some.


One of the sub-postmasters depicted in “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” is Jo Hamilton from Hampshire. When she ran into difficulties with the Horizon system in the early 2000s, she assumed it was her own lack of technological ability that was at fault. From the way she responded it seems that at times she went into a freeze response, where she could not think or act rationally. In a panic, she adjusted her figures to make the computer balance. We saw her sitting on the floor of her shop staring blankly at reams of paper printouts with tears running down her face almost paralysed with fear. Jo lost her job and was charged with the theft of £36,000 but avoided prison by pleading guilty to a lesser charge of false accounting. She joined Alan Bates’ campaign early on in the process and has been able to successfully appeal her conviction.


How we respond to threat is not within our control initially. Our mind makes an instant assessment and goes into fight/flight/freeze modes depending on a very rudimentary assessment of the most likely survival odds of each strategy. Personality factors probably play a part, previous training, such as military training may make a difference, but ultimately it is the actions of a tiny part of the limbic system of our brain and our brain stem that makes the decision, not the clever thinking part.


The longer term impacts of such adverse events can vary, with some people recovering quickly with the support of friends and family. About a quarter to a third of people will go on to have a range of difficulties such as flashbacks and nightmares, avoidance of anything that reminds them of the event, mood difficulties such as anxiety and depression, and difficulty letting their guard down, relaxing or sleeping, or experiencing irritability, anger and agitation. In the worst cases these difficulties can become intolerable, and suicide can be the outcome.  One of the problems with the Post Office scandal though is that it was not a one-off event, each case was a protracted dispute between employer and employee, where the stakes for the employee just got higher and higher as time went on. We know that the impact of a traumatic event is lessened if there is even just one supportive other to lean on. All of the sub-postmasters were told they were the only one experiencing problems. Until Alan Bates’ campaign took off, there was no mutual support network and so the impact of these events was all the more devastating to the individuals involved.


At the end of “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” Alan Bates states “It is not over yet”, despite the public inquiry he had sought finally being in progress. His implication is that there is more for the sub-postmasters to fight for. I agree. I believe they should all be fully compensated for every penny they lost, but perhaps more importantly, for the psychological injury they have sustained. Whether or not we define this as a traumatic event as per the formal diagnostic criteria, this is a very serious set of circumstances, caused by potentially criminal acts, that threatened people’s livelihoods, caused actual deaths (by suicide) and caused untold mental distress over many, many years.  I am with Alan Bates, “It’s not over yet”.

Dr Yvonne Waft

Registered Clinical Psychologist





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