Belfast Solicitor Michael Madden (right) with client Lee Williamson

Solicitor Michael Madden (right) and Lee Williamson who is currently in court appealing his conviction as one of the sub-postmasters caught up in the Horizon IT Scandal.

A former Portstewart sub-postmaster has said he was hospitalised for his own safety following a breakdown caused by the toll of being falsely labelled a thief as a result of the Horizon IT scandal.

Lee Williamson (49), who was born in Castlederg, is one of 28 known postmasters in Northern Ireland to be wrongly convicted as a result of the scandal which is referred to as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Speaking at length as he heads into the final stages of a legal battle to clear his name after more than a decade, Mr Williamson recalled the decision to plead guilty for the sake of his children and how the Post Office pushed to interview him while he was receiving mental health treatment.

“The shortfalls had taken a toll on me for quite a number of years, and the audit on May 22, 2012, realised there was a shortfall of £16,000 — well that was the trigger as well,” said Mr Williamson, speaking alongside his solicitor Michael Madden from Madden and Finucane in Belfast.

“That was when I had a mental health breakdown.”

Shortfalls (a failure to meet the correct total in a day based on transactions) were the primary issue caused by the Horizon IT system which the Post Office introduced in the early 2000s.

The system would automatically incorrectly claim there was a shortfall in takings, which then, as per Post Office guidance, was the postmaster or mistress’ responsibility to make up.

Repeated shortfalls in takings were then assumed to be fraud by the company, which led to charges being brought against hundreds of post office workers including Mr Williamson who pleaded guilty to fraud in 2014.

The Post Office has since apologised, with their CEO Nick Read saying in a statement: “We are deeply sorry for the hurt and suffering that was caused to victims of the Horizon IT scandal.”

Mr Williamson continued: “You would have a problem with the balancing, no matter the size, and you would constantly think ‘I’ve messed up again’ and you’re self-worth would go down again. Your self-worth would just be destroyed with each occurrence.

“And then as the years went on, it reinforced the negative thinking that you couldn’t get out of it. I tried multiple times to get out of it, I put the Post Office up for sale twice, and it sold twice, but at that time the banks didn’t have any money, and they fell through.”

In 2012, the culmination of the shortfalls and errors in the system, which led to an audit by the Post Office of his branch, meant Mr Williamson suffered a nervous breakdown, having been accused of mismanaging funds.

“When the audit came, it was the final straw and I was hospitalised for my own safety. I spent four weeks in a hospital. My father ended up having to speak to the Post Office on my behalf during this time.

“They actually kept pushing for an interview when I was hospitalised, and he had to fight them off.

“I just didn’t have answers for them and I thought this was just happening to myself. I thought it was my incompetence.”

A common tactic employed by the Post Office during the midst of the scandal was convincing postmasters the issues they were having were unique and were not occurring across hundreds of branches in the UK.

It’s the crux of the ongoing Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, which has found the Post Office was aware of the issue and the convictions they were pursuing were unsafe.

“Because of being hospitalised, I thought I had let my family down. We were expecting our third child at the time and I couldn’t let them down again by being put in prison, so I was told if I submitted a guilty plea, I would just get a suspended sentence.

“I just wanted to draw a line under it and move on. I didn’t want my children teased at school. I have a young family who I didn’t want to have a convicted father.

“It is one of my biggest regrets I have, pleading guilty when I knew I wasn’t guilty.”

Mr Williamson is now in the midst of an appeal which was launched in 2022 to clear his name. Following television drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, there was a public outcry at the company’s behaviour and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak brought forward legislation to exonerate victims.

When announced it did not apply in Northern Ireland. However, within the past several weeks this has been changed, with Mr Williamson now hoping his appeal is settled by the legislation before its conclusion.

Despite the likelihood his exoneration will be completed by July, Mr Williamson is still not letting himself become too confident.

“I’m still not exonerated until it’s on paper in front of me. It’s not done until it’s done. I don’t have the release of emotion,” he said.

“I can’t feel the relief yet.”

Speaking alongside Mr Williamson, his solicitor Michael Madden said “he was put in an impossible situation” in pleading guilty.

“There was a duty by the Post Office and by prosecutors to provide disclosure and to properly investigate — clearly, this was not provided,” said Mr Madden.

“The evidence coming out in the inquiry paints a very clear picture that the Post Office knew of the errors with Horizon.

“The Alan Bates case showed the reason they did was to prevent further prosecutions and someone in the Post Office made that decision. Even if the benefit of the doubt was given and Lee’s case was looked at in isolation, it can’t be.

“The pattern would have been seen, these problems didn’t come out of nowhere.”

He believes prosecutions are likely against individuals involved within the Post Office if it is found information was deliberately held back.

“The next is calling for these prosecutions and the justice of it merits jail time.

“During the inquiry, you’ve seen investigators give evidence, and the pattern is pointing the finger above them.”

As for the only repercussion of the scandal so far — former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells handing back her CBE following an outcry — Mr Williamson admits he doesn’t judge others by their actions.

“It’s on her conscience and she’s to answer for herself, two wrongs don’t make a right. We were judged unfairly, so I would leave it to the inquiry and their capable hands to judge anyone else and their involvement.”

Belfast Telegraph