Sur internet : The Guardian view on justice for the sub-postmasters: the reckoning has only just begun | Editorial

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A scandal as vast as the wrongful conviction of hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters is no single person’s fault, but it should plague many consciences. The government’s plan, announced in parliament on Wednesday, to exonerate all victims and expedite compensation is only the start of the reckoning.

Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have all been in government over the long period when insufficient interest was taken in the case. Ministers accepted reassurances that should have been challenged. A malfunctioning IT system was given more credence than evidence of an appalling miscarriage of justice, arguably the biggest in modern British legal history.

In some cases, the offence may be limited to naivety or inattention. In others it might be callous indifference. But the greatest culpability is found in the pattern of deception and obstruction at the Post Office and opacity at Fujitsu, the company behind Horizon, the computer system at the root of so much misery.

Answering questions about the scandal in the Commons on Wednesday, Kevin Hollinrake, minister for the Post Office, told MPs that a public inquiry under way has revealed evidence of “not only incompetence, but malevolence”. Lives have been ruined, and others have been lost to suicide, because of choices made to put profit and reputation, both corporate and personal, ahead of honesty, judgment and humanity.

A moral failure so monumental has both institutional and individual origins. There are systems that need examination to understand how so many could be complicit in pursuing unsafe and unjust prosecutions for so long, to the point of vindictive extortion from people with no means to pay. Some of that will be a function of rigid hierarchies and fear of passing bad news up a chain of command. Some is mindless deference to the myth of digital infallibility.

But injustice on such a scale also involves abuse of power; people withholding evidence or acting negligently to the point of criminal malfeasance. Exonerating and compensating the victims is one side of justice being seen to be done. The other comes when their tormentors are held to account.

The ongoing public inquiry is a vital mechanism for establishing the facts, and that takes time. In these circumstances there is a tension between the imperative to act swiftly, especially when so much time has already been lost, and the requirement of diligence in ensuring that things are, at long last, done properly. There is no perfect balance. There is a risk, for example, that blanket quashing of all prosecutions lumps innocent victims together with those very few cases where fraud really was committed. Some sub-postmasters are uncomfortable with that association. But the more exhaustive process of case-by-case adjudication has already proved too slow.

There will inevitably be questions raised about the adequacy and allocation of compensation, especially when previous settlements were depleted by legal costs. It is also reasonable to ask why Fujitsu has contributed nothing to the pot of redress, while continuing to benefit from lucrative public contracts. Thus the UK taxpayer gets billed twice, paying for the Horizon failure and continuing to procure the services of its creator.

A scandal of this magnitude has many aftershocks. The government was shaken into action on Wednesday. There are many who wanted the sub-postmasters’ story to blow over who should now feel the ground trembling under their feet.

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