Lessons from the Post Office Scandal

4 Minutes

“There is no direct evidence of her taking any money… She adamantly denies stealing. There is no CCTV evidence. There are no fingerprints or marked bank notes or anything of that kind. There is no evidence of her accumulating cash anywhere, or spending large sums of money, or paying off debts… Nothing incriminating was found when her home was searched.”

These closing remarks by Justice Neil Stewart at the trial of sub-postmaster Seema Misra would normally lead you to believe that she would be found not guilty. But in fact a jury convicted her of stealing £75,000 from the Post Office in October 2010. She was sentenced to 15 months in jail.

We’ve all heard so much about this appalling scandal in the past few weeks (and if you haven’t already, it’s worth listening to the podcast on BBC Sounds which covers it in much more detail than the excellent ITV television series was able to). How the blind faith in an IT system led to convictions such as this, and how a corporate culture bent on protecting the ‘brand’ meant that questions were never asked, and if they were, any unfavourable answers were ignored.

One (of many) big questions

When I first heard about this scandal a few years ago, one question struck me more than any other. Why, after the first few cases arose, did no-one stop for a minute and think – ‘this seems unlikely. We need to look into it properly.’

The upsurge in cases of alleged theft or fraud must have skyrocketed. Now, whilst you might expect to find a few cases that might have been missed when the new technology was implemented, the rate must have been much higher than that. And looking at the individuals involved must have, must have raised questions for somebody, somewhere in the organisation.

Postmasters and postmistresses that had managed their branches for years, with no issues whatsoever, all suddenly deciding that now was the time to try and defraud the organisation that provided their livelihood? Really?
Maybe someone did. Maybe questions were asked but were hushed into silence. Or maybe the belief in the technology was so strong that no-one could contemplate it being anything but correct.

The Investigations

Either way, it’s clear that whatever investigations did take place were biased and unfair. The investigators were looking for evidence to prove the allegations, rather than evidence to exonerate. They took nothing that the sub-postmasters said into account, and effectively were the judge, jury and executioner.

And if the postmasters had been employees, this could have led to the biggest number of Employment Tribunal cases that one company has ever experienced.

Along with many other examples of ‘this is how not to do it’, the way that those investigations were carried out is a key one for employers. Investigations should be fair, unbiased and look for evidence on both sides.

Next Steps for You

If you have a situation at work that requires investigation – don’t hesitate to get in touch. Or you can access the recording of my previous webinar on Handling Disciplinary issues here.