Fujitsu bugs that sent innocent people to prison were known “from the start”

Enlarge / Paul Patterson, co-CEO of Fujitsu’s European division, testifies for a public inquiry in London on January 19, 2024.

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Fujitsu software bugs that helped send innocent postal employees to prison in the UK were known “right from the very start of deployment,” a Fujitsu executive told a public inquiry today.

“All the bugs and errors have been known at one level or not, for many, many years. Right from the very start of deployment of the system, there were bugs and errors and defects, which were well-known to all parties,” said Paul Patterson, co-CEO of Fujitsu’s European division.

That goes back to 1999, when the Horizon software system was installed in post offices by Fujitsu subsidiary International Computers Limited. From 1999 to 2015, Fujitsu’s faulty accounting software aided in the prosecution and conviction of more than 900 sub-postmasters and postmistresses who were accused of theft or fraud when the software wrongly made it appear that money was missing from their branches.

Some innocent people went to prison, while others were forced to make payments to the UK Post Office to cover the supposed shortfalls. So far, “only 93 convictions have been overturned and thousands of people are still waiting for compensation settlements,” a BBC report said.

Post Office lawyers rewrote Fujitsu witness statements

During the prosecutions, courts hearing cases against postal employees “were not told of 29 bugs identified as early as 1999 in the system it built,” The Guardian wrote in a summary of Patterson’s testimony today. The article said:

When bugs were acknowledged, witness statements from Fujitsu staff due to be heard in court were then edited by the Post Office as it sought to maintain the line that the system was working well as it pursued innocent people through the courts.

Paul Patterson agreed that both organizations had failed the accused. “I am surprised that that detail was not included in the witness statements given by Fujitsu staff to the Post Office and I have seen some evidence of editing witness statements by others,” he said.

Asked by the lead counsel of the public inquiry, Jason Beer KC, whether he agreed that this was shameful, Patterson, who has worked at the company for 14 years, said: “That would be one word I would use. Shameful and appalling. My understanding of how our laws work in this country, is that all of the evidence should have been put in front of the subpostmasters that the Post Office was relying on to prosecute them.”

A Financial Times article said that the public inquiry “heard in December last year that the Post Office’s lawyers had rewritten Fujitsu witness statements.”

The FT article also said the Post Office, which used prosecution powers available to private corporations in the UK, obtained 700 of the 900 convictions. The other convictions came in cases brought by Scottish prosecutors. The scandal may lead to reforms of the private prosecution system that lets organizations take people to court.

Bugs were understood “way back to 1999”

Earlier this week, Patterson told UK Parliament members that “Fujitsu would like to apologize for our part in this appalling miscarriage of justice. We were involved from the very start. We did have bugs and errors in the system and we did help the Post Office in their prosecutions of the sub-postmasters. For that we are truly sorry.”

Patterson also told Parliament members that Fujitsu has “a moral obligation” to contribute to the compensation for victims.

Patterson testified today in a different setting, answering questions from lawyers representing victims. One of those lawyers, Flora Page, asked Patterson, “Did nobody historically make that pretty obvious connection between very poor code going out into operation and then very poor data coming out and through the litigation support service?”

Patterson answered, “Whether people made that connection or not, what is very evident… is that that connection and understanding about what was going on and where was it, was understood by certainly Fujitsu and certainly understood by Post Office way back to 1999. It’s all about what you do with that information… that is a question for this inquiry.”

Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake, the MP for Thirsk and Malton, told the BBC that his “number one priority” is to “try and get compensation and get answers for people.”

“You’ve had marriages fail, people commit suicide, an horrendous impact on people’s lives,” he said. “It’s perfectly reasonable that the public should demand people are held to account and that should mean criminal prosecutions wherever possible.” The UK government also has plans for a new law to “swiftly exonerate and compensate” people who were falsely convicted.

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