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How can we respond to the Post Office scandal as Christians?

Ross Hendry

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This week the two-decades-long Post Office scandal has exploded into our popular consciousness and rapidly risen to politicians’ attention. How we respond reflects our values and our ideals, as well as our understanding of how we mitigate the danger and injustices that the Bible speaks about in very real terms. As a story, it raises profound questions about human nature as well as very practical lessons about accountability, the law, justice, politics, and our own sense of what it means to be human.

Before diving into some of these, it is worth briefly reflecting on the background to the story and what we know at the end of a week of whirlwind activity.

What is the Post Office scan­dal all about?

The story begins in 1999 when the Post Office introduced a new accounting system called Horizon. In the years that followed its introduction, more than 900 subpostmasters and subpostmistresses were accused of theft, fraud, and false accounting based on discrepancies in Horizon. Many were prosecuted, and some were even jailed, despite raising concerns about the software's accuracy.

As we now know, Horizon was faulty, causing accounting errors and making it appear as if money was missing when it wasn't. The Post Office initially denied responsibility and insisted the discrepancies were due to the subpostmasters' actions, despite key figures being made warned that the platform was faulty.

It took years of campaigning and legal battles for the truth to come out, until eventually in 2019, a court ruled that Horizon was unreliable, paving the way for convictions to be overturned. However, claiming compensation has been incredibly slow and complex, and while the courts have overturned the conviction of one hundred of those who were wrongly prosecuted, hundreds more are still to be acquitted or compensated. Public attention (and pressure) is only now turning to the Post Office scandal due to a recent ITV drama about it.

On Wednesday (10 January) the government announced plans to introduce a new law to quickly exonerate all those wrongly convicted due to Horizon, clearing their names and records. Upfront payment will be made to the hundreds of affected postmasters who participated in the 2019 group litigation. They will receive an immediate £75,000 each, and there will be a separate compensation scheme implemented for others affected by the scandal. They can choose between an upfront payment of £600,000 or a more detailed assessment for potentially higher compensation.

Alongside these measures a Public Inquiry is ongoing, and the government is considering stripping the Post Office of its power to prosecute cases related to Horizon, possibly transferring it to the Crown Prosecution Service.

What can we learn from this as Christians?

The Post Office story demonstrates how hard it is for each of us to have a right view of ourselves. Yes, we are fearfully and wonderfully made in our Creator’s image. And we really are hardwired to love and seek justice, to be good stewards, and to care for creation and to love our neighbour. But we are also fallen people. We live on this side of the Fall where sin has infiltrated every molecule of creation including our own hearts.

And so, it is natural that our heart breaks at the individual stories of the postmasters and mistresses and their families who have been financially and emotionally broken by the events of the last two decades; it is right that we long for their restoration.

But we also need to acknowledge that we might easily have first stood with the accusers, rather than with the accused. For it was also God’s image-bearers, fellow humans, who dehumanised the innocent and (potentially) wilfully turned a blind eye to the growing body of evidence that would have proved the accusations and charges to be false.

Pride can so easily lead us astray; sometimes we require humility to submit to the truth, particularly when it reveals our flaws or our mistakes. How many rushed to judge those accused? And how many of us turned a blind eye to their cause originally? Justice in God’s economy is not doing a few good deeds as we continue to wear our blinkers. It begins with seeing injustice and not walking past on the other side of the road.

Time and again the Bible warns us about the danger of sin – how it blinds us to the truth and how it paralyses us from acting justly and loving mercy. Jesus warns and confronts us about our blind spots and the need to be humble and open about our own prejudices. He challenges our preconceptions, and it is uncomfortable when he reveals our blind spots.

We also need to be aware that although our legal and justice systems are not inherently corrupt, they, like all human institutions and systems, are inevitably corrupted by our sinfulness; our courts are not infallible and they do sometimes fail to deliver justice or compassionate verdicts. Miscarriages of justice do happen.

Countless passages in the Old Testament warned Israel about their legal and justice systems becoming corrupted. The prophets counselled out they were not protecting the vulnerable, the powerless and the marginalised, but promoted the interests and privilege of the powerful, in ways that allow them to continue to oppress and exploit.

Many put blind faith in the ‘system’, or in institutions, while others lose faith altogether and believe that institutions (whether public sector or private companies) can never produce justice or good outcomes. The Bible challenges us to have a balanced and right view of government, human laws, companies and organisations, and the courts. We should recognise their capacity to do great good, but also the danger of how they can be bent to work against those who need protection.

How can we live distinctly?

Understanding these two truths carries some practical applications for those of us who pursue justice within the public square. Let me just name five that I urge us to prayerfully consider more deeply and to pursue in light of the Post Office scandal:

  1. Let us be measured but relentless in ensuring accountability and proportionate justice. Let us pray that the Public Inquiry and ongoing court cases identify how so many innocent Post Office staff were found guilty in the first place. But let us not allow our hunger for justice become reductionistic, so that we find one or two scapegoats and seek revenge. The root of this story is not one bad individual and we need to look at the role of many individuals: the Post Office, Fujitsu, the civil service, investigators, and politicians.
  2. Let us seek fair and good processes that mitigate the risk of wrong decisions and injustice. In the Bible we see a God who at times can be prescriptive in establishing a legal process that seeks to ensure truth and justice is realised. It is right for us to promote and support reforms to legal compensation schemes, the legal system, and to hold both public and private organisations to account.
  3. We need to have a proper debate about the faith we place in technology over people. Technology can be a great tool and aid to our lives, but the Post Office scandal demonstrates how in so many areas we have a blind faith in technology and a distrust of people; arguably we have imbued technology with an authority that flips the good creation order.
  4. Our zeal for justice for the postmasters and mistresses should be an inspiration and catalyst for seeking justice for those impacted by other long-running stories including, amongst others, the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, and the contaminated blood scandal. Our God hears the cries of all people, not just those depicted in a TV drama. Let us resolve to be the champion of the widow, the orphan, immigrant, and the poor.
  5. Let us be committed to justice for the long haul and not just for a news cycle. One of the tests of justice is whether it is seen through to its conclusion. Will the promised reforms and measures be planted when this scandal drops down the public, media, and political agenda? A sprint of activity and action from the adrenaline boost of widespread coverage is a welcome way of breaking an impasse, but deep wrongs are rarely righted in a few weeks. We need to have discipline, perseverance and the faithfulness of our God to see this through properly.

In pursing these applications we are committed to seeking justice and redemption that can improve the lives of those who have been wronged, but that can never be perfect or fully complete.

And so as our heart breaks for the stories we have heard this week, may it also long for the day when all the brokenness of this world will be healed and mended; when wrongs will be righted completely, and when every tear will be wiped away. Let each past wrong spur us to act now and to long more deeply for our future hope to be realised.

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