Michael Madden Solicitor & Alan McLaughlin

Michael Madden of Madden & Finucane Solicitors with Alan McLaughlin outside the court of appeal.

The Post Office scandal unfolded over 20 years, but the repercussions of the Horizon accounting system that led to widespread injustice in every corner of the UK are still being felt today.

New ITV series Mr Bates vs the Post Office has seen the spotlight return to the heart-wrenching stories of Post Office staff, including many in Northern Ireland, who were wrongly accused of theft and fraud.

They became the unwitting casualties of a technological debacle that shook the foundations of the postal system.

Designed to streamline operations and enhance efficiency in Post Offices across the UK, the software instead became a source of distress and financial ruin for many postmasters and mistresses.

Software flaws led to unexplained accounting discrepancies, false accusations of financial mismanagement, and legal battles that tore lives apart.

Among the first casualties was north Belfast man Alan McLaughlin, who found himself caught up in one of the biggest cases of miscarriages of justice in UK history when he was convicted of false accounting offences while in charge of the Brookfield Post Office branch in Tennent Street.

Mr McLaughlin had only worked in the branch for two years, between 1999 and 2001, and was found guilty of 15 counts of fraud-related offences in 2005 after it was alleged he was responsible for a loss totalling nearly £10,000.

He strenuously denied the charges, and even went as far as to commission a third party accountant’s report in support of his defence. In 2022, he became the first person in Northern Ireland to have their conviction quashed after the Court of Appeal found a failure to disclose information related to the faulty IT system had prevented him from getting a fair trial.

Upon his appeal, Lady Chief Justice Dame Siobhan Keegan said the fact that details about Horizon’s IT issues were not disclosed left the matter with a “sense of unease”, while Mr McLaughlin lamented the loss of 17 years of his life which he said had been “tarnished” following the wrongful conviction.

He later took part in the public inquiry into the matter, one which plays a large part in ITV’s dramatisation of events. His legal team, headed up by Michael Madden, said at the time of the quashed conviction that he would be seeking compensation.

Another victim — Sinead Rainey from Moneyglass — is perhaps best known for an emotional statement in which she described coming home after being informed of the fraud charges against her.

“I drove home and I lifted a bucket in my house and gathered any money that I had in the house — 2ps, 5ps, everything,” she told a sitting of the inquiry in Belfast.

She went on to describe how she emptied her young children’s piggy banks and borrowed money from family members in order to pay back the £63,000 she was accused of taking.

Unlike most caught up in the scandal, Mrs Rainey was not actually a postmistress, instead owning a Spar shop which had a Post Office in it. Due to technically not being employed by the Post Office, she received no training or support when errors began appearing, despite being tasked with working in the branch.

She described “almost collapsing” when she arrived to uniformed Post Office auditors in her shop in 2019 who told her the branch had a discrepancy of over £63,000.

“I felt completely alone. I struggled to explain the situation to anyone as I couldn’t make sense of it myself,” she said.

Another victim, Deirdre Connolly, was advised by an uncle to look into Mrs Rainey’s case, as it had similarities to her own.

Shortly after beginning a role at a Post Office in 2006 in Co Tyrone, Mrs Connolly was told there was a discrepancy in the accounts of £16,592. Like many others involved in the scandal, she paid back the money using her own funds, despite knowing it was a mistake.

She later went bankrupt and developed epilepsy due to the stress, before she joined her fellow wrongly-accused in legal action in England in 2019. They won their case to prove their innocence.

These three are just a small sample of more than 700 people affected by the scandal, which also included Fiona Elliott, who bought a Post Office branch in Clady, Co Tyrone.

Ms Elliott gave evidence after she was told that she owed £6,000 in discrepancies and described hunting in bins for the missing money.

She later left the business after stating she could no longer “be there” after the scandal.

Maureen McKelvey, Clanabogan’s subpostmistress in Omagh from 1990 to 2001, testified at the inquiry how she had reported £30,000 shortfalls in the Horizon system.

Post Office helpline advice led her to cover the losses, claiming she was the sole victim; however, auditors abruptly shut her post office, accusing her of theft.

After five years in limbo, she was eventually found not guilty. The stress caused her thyroid to rupture, requiring major surgery and despite being cleared of charges.

She sold her business at a significant loss, lamenting the Post Office’s theft of her future, business, health, and reputation.

The Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry is still ongoing.

Mr Bates vs The Post Office is currently airing on ITV and ITVX.

Belfast Telegraph