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Horizon Accounting System – Is It Reliable?

The Post Office Horizon Accounting System and its network of some 12000 branches around the UK represent a substantial financial institutional and as such form an obvious target for criminals.  At Mark Jenner & Co Limited we have seen a number of cases centered around the Post Office and its bespoke Horizon computerized accounting system.

The Horizon system networks the Post Office branches with central operations in order to streamline the management of the various financial services provided.  It has featured in the national press on a number of occasions when Post Office franchise holders and managers have complained that the system frequently produces errors that can be costly, particularly in the cases where branch sub post masters are forced to make up shortfalls caused by these errors.

Where we have been instructed, these shortfalls have been considerable, usually between around £30,000 to £50,000. Of course when a Post Office auditor finds a difference of this magnitude between cash held by a branch and the theoretical amount that should be there according to records showing up within Horizon, the natural reaction is to suspect theft.  Yet in all cases seen, the accused post master has always maintained their innocence and that the system is wrong.

A post master may be tempted to borrow funds from the post office branch over which he has stewardship, and I have seen this happen on a number of occasions.  Sometimes the money has been paid back, and other times it has not with the post master borrowing even more as he or she gets deeper into financial difficulty.

In a couple of cases, personal bank accounts showed serious personal financial difficulties including gambling costs, together with cash introductions broadly matching “errors” being noted in the Horizon records.  Here it was difficult to maintain innocence and defendants have pleaded guilty to lesser charges of falsifying accounting records and luckily escape more serious allegations of theft.

In other cases, the accused has genuinely paid back the money borrowed. Here the Post Office confirmed this by undertaking an external cash count just after the money was apparently returned. Curiously, a full audit was undertaken only a couple of months later resulting in a £30,000 discrepancy. Here there was substantial doubt that the branch operative had taken any more money, as his boss (the branch sub post master must have known) and the employee was fully acquitted.

Clearly there is some doubt over the complete integrity of the Horizon accounting system, and it is quite possible it is capable of making irreconcilable errors from time to time.  Indeed the Post Office commissioned a systems review by a specialist forensic accounting firm in 2013 and reported back to the Government that there was no evidence of system wide problems with the Horizon software.

There will be a number of incarcerated post masters that will remain skeptical about these findings.  However, the best and most “fail safe” control over losses is the responsibility given to any sub post master (or mistress) over the funds being held.  They are responsible for the funds, and any shortfall must be made good. This mean that when an error occurs and a daily shortfall occurs, it is investigated within the branch until found.  Many of the large discrepancies that I see have taken place over several months, as more and more money is taken. This means that the discrepancies are accruing, with no interaction between post master and the Post Office to resolve a potential mistake that could have been made by any party (including the Horizon system).

Mark Jenner & Co Limited is happy to investigate cases involving Post Office losses and will apply its experience of other similar cases, which includes analyzing archived Horizon data, in order to mitigate and even disprove serious criminal allegations of theft.