A former sub-postmaster, who was once the youngest in the country, has told how he was hounded for £88,000 for almost five years during the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

Christopher Head was 18 when he took over a branch of the Post Office in West Boldon, near Sunderland, in 2006 but nine years later found himself the subject of a criminal investigation.

He was one of hundreds of people across the UK wrongly accused of theft and fraud, which was actually due to an IT error on the Horizon computer system.

The scandal – the subject of a recent ITV drama series starring Toby Jones – had a devastating impact on people’s lives as postmasters lost their reputations, their livelihoods and in some cases their families.

Some were wrongfully jailed and there are thought to be at least four cases of suicide resulting from the false allegations of fraud.

The Northern Echo: Chris Head Chris Head (Image: Contributor)Chris, now 36, said: “I was under criminal investigation for six months and then they said they were dropping everything but did not give me a reason why.

“Two weeks later the Post Office wrote to me and said under the terms of the contract I had to replay the shortfall of £88,000.

“They said if did not pay in seven days by debit or credit card they would start civil proceedings and that is exactly what they did.  

“I did not have it, but I thought: 'I am not paying it because I don’t bloody owe it'.”

Chris spent years campaigning for justice and in December 2019 he was among hundreds of sub-postmasters who finally won their case against the Post Office in a £50 million settlement over the IT system, which was installed and maintained by Fujitsu between 2000 and 2014.

A judge-led public inquiry is now underway in London and is expected to run until the end of the year but many fear they will never get back the time and money they lost.

Chris said up to 1,000 former sub-postmasters were wrongly accused and only around ten per cent have been able to clear their name in court so far.

He would like to see the law changed so they can all be compensated for the ordeal they have been through.

Chris said: “Hundreds of people have an unsafe criminal conviction against their name.

"We cannot have the current system where only 12 can be dealt with at a time. It will take 15 or 20 years. We need new legislation so they can all be exonerated in one go.

“Until we do that people cannot access any compensation while they have a criminal conviction hanging over their head.”

Chris is just one of a number of people across the region affected by the scandal.

Former Darlington sub-postmaster Richard Ormerod denied wrongdoing but pleaded guilty of three charges of fraud by false accounting, amounting to £31,097 as was sentenced to a 12-month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £250 costs after pleading guilty at South Durham Magistrates’ Court in 2004.

He had also re-mortgaged his house to pay the missing money but was exonerated in 2022 – at the age of 79 - after a hearing at the Court of Appeal.

The Northern Echo: The case against Timothy Burgess went to Teesside Crown Court in 2011The case against Timothy Burgess went to Teesside Crown Court in 2011 (Image: Northern Echo)Timothy Burgess, who took over the Post Office in Catterick, North Yorkshire, in 2006 was accused of being responsible for a deficit of cash and items such as postal orders and stamps totalling more than £7,500.

He admitted false accounting at Teesside Crown Court in 2011 and was ordered to carry out 150 hours of unpaid work and pay £500 court costs.

He told the inquiry: “I still feel bitter about how unfair the system is and how I and others have been treated.

“I feel like I have lost a significant chunk of my life and that I will never get that time back with my family.

“I feel sad that this event has changed me and my family irreparably.”

Mr Burgess was one of 39 overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2021 and he is now trying to rebuild his life.

The Northern Echo: Paula VennellsPaula Vennells (Image: PA)Paula Vennells, who ran the Post Office while it routinely denied there was a problem with its Horizon IT system, has said she was “truly sorry” for the “suffering” caused to sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted of offences.

A petition calling for Ms Vennells to be stripped of the CBE has attracted more than one million signatures.

MPs now plan to raise the Horizon scandal in the Commons as Parliament returns this week, with Conservative backbencher David Davis and Labour’s North Durham MP Kevan Jones pushing for an emergency debate.

When asked on Good Morning Britain whether people should be prosecuted over the miscarriages of justice, Mr Jones said: “Look at the evidence in court and the evidence which has come out at the public inquiry.

“(There are) umpteen charges that could be laid against a number of individuals. That has got to happen.

“People… want ultimately to know that people are going to be held to account.”

Sir Keir Starmer, speaking during a visit in Loughborough, said the prosecution of the cases should be taken out of the hands of the Post Office and given to the Crown Prosecution Service.

He said: "I used to run the Crown Prosecution Service, we’ve prosecuted for other departments, we can do it here – that should be done straight away.

“And these convictions, the remaining convictions need to be looked at en masse.”

He added: “The Government could pass legislation, so obviously we’d support that if they did.

“It might be possible to get these cases back before the Court of Appeal quickly – I’ve done that when I was a prosecutor – but whichever way it’s done, these convictions need to be looked at.”

Get the latest news, sports, and entertainment delivered straight to your device with a subscription to The Northern Echo. Click here 

The Northern Echo:

Recommended reading:

The Prime Minister, speaking in Accrington, Lancashire, today (Monday, January 8), defended the Government’s response but said he wants to speed up the compensation process.

“People should know that we are on it and we want to make this right, that money has been set aside,” he said.

“We will do everything we can to make this right for the people affected. It is simply wrong what happened. They shouldn’t have been treated like this.”