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‘I blamed myself for my Post Office conviction for 20 years. Now I finally feel able to speak out’

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6 min read time

Former sub-postmaster Keith Bell says that without the recent television drama which exposed the full horror of the Post Office Horizon Scandal to the nation, he wouldn’t have challenged his long-standing criminal record, or even sought compensation.

In his own words, he had ‘buried those awful memories to the back of the mind’ and focussed on living with the cruel hand life had dealt him.

However, in the wake of the huge public outpouring of support for sub-postmasters following the screening of the ITV drama ‘Mr Bates v The Post Office’, he says he finally feels able to talk to people about those dark days, and seek redress.

I had buried what had happened to me firmly at the back of my mind for the past 20 years. It was tough. I cried a lot, I’m now not ashamed to say.

I watched the drama and it was like watching my own life in front of me. Then, in the days that followed, and seeing the public reaction, it was huge in lifting the shame and the embarrassment I’ve always felt. It gave me the confidence to step forward.

Mr Bell has not been the only one.

Almost 450 people affected by the Post Office Horizon scandal, including former sub-postmasters themselves and relatives of others who have since passed, have come forward for legal support from the dedicated Post Office Horizon legal team at Hudgell Solicitors.

‘I thought shortfalls were my fault for 17 years’

Now 75, Mr Bell spent 17 years believing he had been at fault for the shortfalls which occurred at his Post Office branch in Stockton-on-Tees.

He had been a sub-postmaster from 1985, and like hundreds of others, began to experience unexplained shortfalls in his accounts after having the Horizon IT system installed in his branch.

He says he called Post Office helplines but was given little support, so when his books didn’t balance, he’d make up the shortfall himself. He did this firstly from his own savings, then from the proceeds of a house sale, before finally delaying some transactions in desperation to ‘make the books look right’.

When auditors noticed discrepancies, and wrongly told him other sub-postmasters had not had issues with Horizon, he believed he was at fault.

He admitted to a charge of false accounting over a shortfall of £3,000 at Teesside Magistrates’ Court in 2002 and was handed a sentence of 200 hours community service. Unable to maintain mortgage payments on the business property, it was repossessed by the bank.

There seemed to be no other explanation other than it being my fault,” he said.

I kept putting my own money in to balance the books. I must have put around £12,000 in before I couldn’t do any more and then I did falsify the accounts in panic, so in my mind, I was in the wrong.

I blamed myself and thought I’d made a mess of things and committed a crime. They shut the Post Office down and I felt a sense of shame and failure.

‘Conviction has hung over me’

Mr Bell said he was well supported by friends who knew he would not knowingly have committed a crime, and he rebuilt his life the best he could, keeping the details of what happened from his son, who was 12 at the time.

He qualified as driving instructor only to be told a few months later by his employers that he couldn’t continue due to his conviction, and then spent time working as a courier, and in warehousing, to pay the bills.

Life has been tough at times and the conviction has always hung over me, but I’ve been lucky because my partner Sheila has been there and supported me for the past 20 years,” he said.

For a long time after my conviction, she was having to cover all of our bills. I also have great friends who know me well and were very supportive and understanding, but I know others in my position have lost family and friends.

In 2019, Mr Bell saw headlines about a group of 555 sub-postmasters taking the Post Office to court and winning a landmark case which ruled that ‘bugs and errors’ in the Horizon system could have caused discrepancies in branch accounts, and that hundreds of prosecutions of sub-postmasters had therefore been unsafe.

Yet, despite this breakthrough, he still felt unable to become involved.

I’ve got to say I have full admiration for Alan Bates and the 555 for doing what they did. Given what we’d all been put through already by the legal system, they were so brave. After 17 years of feeling I’d been at fault for what happened, things began to come clear, but I still couldn’t face another legal battle to clear my name at that stage.

I didn’t have the energy to go through court proceedings again, and start having to prove my innocence over many things I struggle to recall in detail today.

TV Drama gave confidence to speak out

It was only after watching the impact of the recent TV drama, the subsequent fallout which has seen the media spotlight fall upon the scandal, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledging to overturn all convictions, that Mr Gill says he felt confident enough to speak out.

It feels like the landscape has changed. It is right that it is all now coming out into the open, and that people know what happened to us. Sub-postmasters are all a certain type of person. We’re not thieves, we are people who throw ourselves into our communities to help. Even now at 75 I coach rugby.

For me it’s not about the compensation, it’s about two other things. Firstly I want my name cleared. I’m, an honest person who has been labelled a criminal for 20 years, and the impact of that is huge.

Secondly I want to make sure nothing like this happens again. We were all made to feel shame, and that is why people like myself have never come forward until now.

I think we need to collectively step forward now, and make sure every aspect of what happened is unearthed. This should never have happened to one person, never mind hundreds as it did.

Hudgell Solicitors are now representing and advising more than 500 people linked to the Post Office Horizon scandal, helping overturn convictions, and secure compensation for Malicious Prosecutions or through the Historical Shortfall Scheme.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell said: “We are obviously delighted that more victims of this scandal like Mr Bell are feeling confident enough to come forward.

“There have been some big promises made by Government over the past couple of weeks, and it is our role to ensure they follow these through and ensure everyone is fully and fairly compensated for their suffering, as quickly as possible.”

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