Accused deputy postmaster ‘considered suicide’ over flaws in system

Josephine Hamilton arrives at the International Dispute Resolution Center in London (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

A postmaster among those falsely accused of theft, fraud and false accounting has told an inquest he was ‘considering suicide’ after being left with a £17,000 bill due to loopholes in the postal system.

Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmasters (SPMs) were prosecuted based on information from the Horizon system, installed and maintained by Fujitsu.

However, in December 2019 a High Court judge ruled that Horizon’s system contained a number of ‘bugs, errors and flaws’ and that there was a ‘significant risk’ of deficits in branch accounts. mailings are caused by the system.

Baljit Sethi, 69, and his wife Anjana, 67, who have three children, “lost everything” after a system failure affected them, an inquest in central London heard on Monday.

The couple said they had the ‘best time’ of their lives running a branch near Romford, Essex, from 1983 because they were popular in the local community.

Mr Sethi, the first witness to give evidence, told the inquest: ‘We haven’t taken a penny from the post office in our whole life.

Baljit Sethi and his wife Anjana (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

Baljit Sethi and his wife Anjana (Stefan Rousseau/PA) (PA Wire)

The inquest heard that in 2001 Mr Sethi took on another branch in Brentwood, Essex, which after a year showed a hole in the accounts of £17,000, which the couple were asked to cover of their own poached.

Mr Sethi, who was never charged, told the inquest he tried to contact the head office in Chelmsford, Essex, after noticing a problem with the system.

He broke down in tears saying, “I was the only man who ran the Post Office seven days a week.

“Before, I opened at 8 a.m. and closed at 8 p.m. I was the only post office in the country to operate every seven days.

Mr Sethi, whose contract was terminated, said: ‘I knew there was something wrong with the system but no one wanted to find out.

Asked about his life afterwards, Mr Sethi said: ‘We lost everything we had after 20 to 25 years and it was all thanks to the post.

I knew there was something wrong with the system, but nobody wanted to know

Baljit Sethi

He added: ‘I was depressed, I considered suicide but thought no, that’s the easy way out, what about my family and kids?

Mr Sethi described working late shifts as a minimum wage security guard to help fund a quality education and lifestyle for his children.

He went on to say, “People in our community thought we stole from the post office.

“All of this has had a negative impact on us psychologically, financially and reputationally.”

The inquest also heard from Josephine Hamilton, who received a one-year supervision order in 2008 after being wrongfully convicted of false accounting.

Ms Hamilton, a former sub-postwoman from South Warnborough, Hampshire, has been accused of stealing £36,000 from her branch.

The inquest heard that she was forced to remortgage her house and borrow money from friends, and that people in her village donated money to help her.

Lives were ruined, families were torn apart, families were left homeless and destitute

Jason Beer QC

She told reporters on Monday that she wanted “some people to suffer the consequences of what they did.”

Ms Hamilton told the inquest: ‘I am so angry. I am so angry with the group that it (La Poste) refuses to compensate.

Dozens of SPMs have had their criminal convictions overturned.

The investigation, which is expected to last the rest of the year, will determine whether the Post was aware of the flaws in the computer system and also ask how the staff were blamed.

Jason Beer QC, solicitor for the inquiry, said the ordeal of those involved could be seen as “the worst miscarriage of justice in recent British legal history”.

He went on to say, “Lives have been ruined, families have been torn apart, families have been left homeless and destitute.

“Reputations have been destroyed, not least because the crimes the men and women were convicted of all involved acting dishonestly.

“People who were important, respected and integral to the local communities they served were in some cases shunned.

“A number of men and women sadly died before the state publicly acknowledged that they had been wrongly convicted.”

Inquiry chairman Sir Wyn Williams said opening the hearing: ‘I cannot stress enough what is, of course, obvious, that these hearings would not take place at all without the witnesses who have agreed to give up their precious time and publicly relive what must be very harrowing memories and events.