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Post Office Horizon Scandal Exposes Dangers of ‘Technological Justice’ According to Surrey Study

Published on: 13 Mar, 2024
Updated on: 15 Mar, 2024

Farncombe Post Office where the sub-postmaster Chirag Sidhpura was one of the Horizon victims

The risks of overreliance on technology in legal processes have been brought to light by the Post Office Horizon scandal, according to researchers at the University of Surrey. 

Researchers also emphasise the dangers of “technological rationality”, where technology shapes not only our actions but also our capacity for critical thinking and understanding of harm.

The now infamous system, called Horizon, was implemented in the early 2000s to manage finances across the Post Office network. However, the software contained errors that generated false accounting shortfalls, leading the Post Office to wrongly accuse sub-postmasters of theft.

Over 700 individuals faced prosecution based on faulty data, with many experiencing financial ruin, emotional distress, and even imprisonment.

Dr Michael McGuire, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Surrey, said: “The Post Office Horizon scandal serves as a stark reminder of the potential pitfalls of ‘technological justice’.

“When legal decisions are based primarily on technical data, without proper scrutiny and consideration of social context, the risk of miscarriages of justice becomes significant.”

The study uses a “zemiological” framework to analyse the various harms inflicted by the scandal, including financial losses, emotional trauma, and societal damage. Zemiology is the study of social harms and originated as a critique of criminology and the notion of crime. In contrast with “individual-based harms” such as theft, the notion of social harm or social injury incorporates harms caused by nation-states and corporations.

However, the authors argue that this framework alone falls short of fully comprehending how technology itself can contribute to such injustices.

Dr Michael McGuire continued: “By critically examining the Post Office scandal through the lens of technology and justice, we can work towards developing more robust frameworks that safeguard against future miscarriages of justice and ensure responsible integration of technology within the legal system.”

This research underscores the urgent need for a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between technology and legal processes, fostering a legal system that is both efficient and grounded in critical human judgment.

The full study has been published in the Howard Journal of Crime and Justice.

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Responses to Post Office Horizon Scandal Exposes Dangers of ‘Technological Justice’ According to Surrey Study

  1. Mike Smith Reply

    March 13, 2024 at 8:23 pm

    Surely what seems to be emerging from the public enquiry is that the Horizon scandal was caused by incompetent investigators and dishonest experts rather than the “overreliance on technology”.

    • John Lomas Reply

      March 15, 2024 at 8:42 am

      If it wasn’t for the faulty technology, there would have been n othing for the incompetent investigators and dishonest experts” to lie about.

  2. John Perkins Reply

    March 14, 2024 at 7:18 pm

    In a somewhat complicated way this report appears to describe what happened in the courts, which is that magistrates and judges accepted expert opinion as fact.

    Section 69 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 ruled that computer evidence was only admissible if it could be shown that the computer was used and operating properly, but that section was repealed in 1999. Expert opinion was thereafter biased in favour of the case made by The Post Office.

    Its investigators were predisposed to finding fraud because that was most likely with the paper system which preceded Horizon. That position became almost an obsession with them. (Anyone familiar with the operation of unaccountable bureaucracy will recognise its inability to admit to mistakes.)

    Fujitsu, the Horizon developers, had a vested interest in claiming that it contained no errors in order to protect their reputation. Once that absurd claim had been made, they too were unable to admit it was wrong.

    Senior management at The Post Office were also inclined to accept both those positions partly because of the culture within the organisation (years ago sub-post offices were disparagingly referred to as “toffee shops”) and partly because they would otherwise have to accept their expensive new system did not work properly. This, despite that fact that it implied large numbers of previously honest sub-postmasters were suddenly engaging in fraud. It was much easier to convince themselves that fraud was widespread and the new system was merely detecting it. Perhaps they were also influenced by bonus payments made for increased profitability.

    None of those involved in the prosecutions can be said to have acted fairly or honestly, with the exception of magistrates and judges who, as the report suggests, were simply relying too heavily on technical data.

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