‘I am an innocent man’: Chesterfield Post Office worker speaks of 'hell' after being wrongly convicted and jailed
Harjinder Butoy is an innocent man.
The Chesterfield dad-of-three endured 18 months behind bars for a crime he did not commit – a victim of what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in recent history.
In 2008, a jury found him guilty of stealing £206,000 from the accounts of the post office he ran – but his conviction was finally overturned at the Court of Appeal on Friday.
He joins 38 other Post Office workers in having their convictions quashed and removed from their records after it emerged there were serious flaws with the Horizon IT system used at branches.
Harjinder is now calling for those responsible for the gross unfairness to be punished.
“We’ve been through hell, absolute hell,” the 44-year-old told the Derbyshire Times.
“My life and my family’s lives have been torn apart by this.
“Many other people’s lives have also been destroyed by this disgrace.
“Now people at the Post Office need to be held accountable and sent to jail like I was.
“Some justice has now been done – but we’ll only get complete justice when those responsible are behind bars.
“I’ve never once given up trying to prove my innocence.
“I’ve repeatedly said that I’ve been innocent for 14 years – and I have now finally been able to prove it.
“It feels like justice for standing my ground and never giving in – I was told by so many people just to admit to stealing the money but I was never going to do that.
“I am an innocent man.”
‘It ruined me’
Harjinder ran Forest Side Sub Post Office in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire.
He said: “I’d only ever had a few discrepancies in the Post Office accounts, a few small amounts either up or down at the end of the week.
“Then all of a sudden about four or five auditors walked in the door one day in 2007 and a couple of hours later they said more than £200,000 was missing.
“My Post Office was closed immediately and all of a sudden I was facing the local CID.
“Our lives were forever changed that day.”
Having being found guilty and sentenced to three years and three months in prison, Harjinder faced a year-and-a-half apart from his wife Balbinder and three young children, who were all aged 10 and under at the time.
“It was a hugely difficult time," he said.
“My wife and kids had to move in with my parents, the Post Office was shut, we lost the shop and our home, and I was declared bankrupt.
“Our standing in the community, which we had worked so hard to establish and be well-liked and trusted, was destroyed.
“There were some people who believed us – but many heard about me being taken off in a police car and the Post Office being closed down and just assumed we were guilty and had stolen the money.
“Jail was horrible – I spent every single day thinking ‘I shouldn’t be in here, I’m innocent’.
“It ruined me.”
Today, more than a decade on, life remains a struggle.
The impact of prosecution is something they have never recovered from – indeed, they probably never will fully get over it.
Both Harjinder and Balbinder have struggled to find employers willing to give them a chance and have had to claim benefits, and they’ve not had a family holiday for more than a decade.
Calls for ‘full independent inquiry’
The 39 former postmasters were convicted after the defective Horizon accounting system was installed.
Announcing the court’s ruling, Lord Justice Holroyde said the Post Office ‘knew there were serious issues about the reliability of Horizon’ and had a ‘clear duty to investigate’ the system’s defects.
But the Post Office ‘consistently asserted that Horizon was robust and reliable’, and ‘effectively steamrolled over any subpostmaster who sought to challenge its accuracy’, the judge added.
Chesterfield MP Toby Perkins took up Harjinder’s case in 2015.
He told the Derbyshire Times he was ‘delighted’ that Harjinder and the other subpostmasters had now had their convictions overturned.
“The devastating effect this ordeal has had on so many lives cannot be underestimated,” Mr Perkins said.
“I can think of few things worse than being imprisoned for a crime you did not commit.
“People’s livelihoods and reputations have been left in tatters, causing long-term financial problems and mental health issues.”
He added: “A full independent inquiry is needed to identify how so many innocent people could be wrongly convicted, and to identify anyone at the Post Office who helped cover up the mistakes.
“So many lives were destroyed and the people responsible need to be held to account.”
Post Office chief executive Nick Read said: “I am in no doubt about the human cost of the Post Office’s past failures and the deep pain that has been caused to people affected.
“The quashing of historical convictions is a vital milestone in fully and properly addressing the past as I work to put right these wrongs as swiftly as possible, and there must be compensation that reflects what has happened.
“In addition, since arriving at the Post Office 18 months ago, my focus has been on resetting the culture at the Post Office and forging a substantive partnership with our postmasters.
“We are determined that they must come first in everything we do because without them there is no Post Office.
“We must transform the Post Office so that it can continue to provide essential services in local communities across the UK.”
Harjinder said he would not give up his fight for ‘complete justice’.
“I’m obviously pleased to have my conviction overturned – but we have lost so much,” he added.
“This can’t be the end of it – and I really hope that the people who did this to me, my family and so many others now face serious investigation.”