A former postal clerk from County Durham, who was falsely accused of 16 counts of theft amid the Horizon accounting scandal, has spoken out about how it was "the worst experience of [her] whole life."

Stephanie Gibson was working at the South Pelaw Post Office within the Mills convenience store, Chester-le-Street, in 2008 when she was arrested and charged with 16 counts of theft and one count of false accounting. 

Stephanie, now 44, was accused of pocketing payments made by people between May and September of 2006. In the summer of 2008, she was found not guilty on all counts.

A "bug in the system", now thought to be one of the same faults that saw subpostmasters, convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting based on faulty Horizon data, was blamed for the monetary discrepancies. 

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Read The Northern Echo's story about Stephanie's acquittal here. 

Concluding the week-long trial at Durham Crown Court, Judge Peter Armstrong told her she left the court "without a stain on her character", but the court of public opinion disagreed. 

Even after being acquitted, the community viewed her as guilty. Stephanie was subjected to abuse, such as repeatedly having her windows smashed in, forcing her to move out of the village. 

She said: "People knew me in the community before this all happened - they'd see me whenever they came into the shop. 

"So after the court case, people recognised me and knew me as the woman who'd been in the paper accused of stealing money - even though I'd been found not guilty, and the missing money had been blamed on a bug in the computer system.

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"People were putting my windows out, someone poured paint stripper over my car, and my three children were getting bullied in school. It was a massive financial and emotional burden for the whole family."

Stephanie has said that the "horrendous" experience has been "the worst thing experience" of her life. 

Now living in High Handenhold, near Beamish, the grandmother of five has come forward to speak about her experience after having memories stirred back up by the airing of ITV's drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office. 

Stephanie is determined to help those left in the same position as her

She said: "It was the worst experience of my life - it was just horrendous. I have no idea how I didn't end up poorly, but even just helping one person like me with my story - that's what I want to do."

The experience of her community turning against her has had long-term effects. Even now, 16 years on, Stephanie finds it difficult to leave the house, which she says is "definitely a hangover" from the experience. 

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Since being traumatically dragged through the courts in 2008, Stephanie has found it difficult to re-enter the working world, with potential employers in her tight-knit community recognising her. 

Despite the lasting impacts the ordeal has had on her life, Stephanie acknowledges that she "got off lightly", as "so many other people were found guilty of things they didn't commit."

More than 900 Post Office branch managers around the UK were prosecuted between 1999 and 2015 after faulty Horizon accounting software made it look as though money was missing from their shops.

But Stephanie thinks there are many others impacted by the dodgy software.

She explained: "So far, everything has just focused on the postmasters and postmistresses, and though I can't comprehend how terrible it is for them, but something similar happened to postal clerks. 

"There's got to be more people just like me out there." 

She urged anyone else in the same position to "just keep going and keep fighting," saying that "justice will be proven eventually."

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"It's the not having any closure, that still bothers me. 

"At the time, it just wasn't something that was spoken about - it has only blown up since the show came out this year."

Stephanie has now engaged a firm of solicitors, Hudgells, to help her get both closure and compensation. The firm is looking after other postal clerks who were victims of the Horizon scandal.