In a poignant and emotionally charged testimony before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in December 2021, former South Warnborough sub-postmaster Jo Hamilton bared her soul about the harrowing experiences she endured during the Post Office and Horizon scandal.

The oral evidence was a raw account of financial devastation, personal sacrifice, and a deep sense of betrayal – and would go on to capture the attention, and outrage, of the public as Jo's story was retold in the four-part ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

Financial ruin and personal sacrifice

When asked about the extent of her financial losses resulting from the scandal, Jo Hamilton painted a grim picture.

"I had to remortgage the house. When I had discrepancies, they kept my wages twice. I would ring up and say how much the shortfall was, and they would say, 'You have to pay it.' There was no question that it might not be correct. They just kept my wages until it was paid off," she revealed.

Jo went on to detail the toll it took on her personal life, sharing: "The amounts grew and grew, and I remortgaged and put £9,000 in. I borrowed money from friends. My parents helped out. Ultimately, I ended up in Winchester Crown Court. I had to plead guilty to false accounting. I always pleaded not guilty to theft. Then they did a last-minute plea bargain, provided I repaid all the money and did not mention Horizon on my sentencing."

This plea bargain came at an exorbitant cost, as Jo disclosed: "I then had to remortgage the house, and the village had a whip-round for the rest of the money that I could not get."

The total amount she had to pay in the plea bargain was a staggering £36,600, with an additional £1,000 for legal costs.

Compensation and long-lasting consequences

When questioned about compensation, Jo shared a mix of relief and frustration.

"Yes, I have had an interim payment, which has given me back the money that I have given them over the years, plus interest, so I consider myself to be quite lucky really."

However, she expressed concern for others in a similar predicament, stating: "Unfortunately, the rest of the group have not got the same. They have lost every bit as much as me, apart from the fact that they did not get dragged through the courts. They deserve to have what I have had, at the very least."

Jo emphasised the impact of compensation on her life, saying: "Having spent years and years in debt, to have a credit balance in your bank is like you cannot imagine."

Inadequate legal support and false claims

The South Warnborough postmistress shed light on the lack of support she received during the ordeal.

"On the original £4,000 I had to pay back, they said, 'your contract says you have to pay it back.' If you look at the words that I had not really read and understood properly, you are liable for it all. They said, 'you have to pay it back,' and so it was not until it got to an enormous amount that I rang the National Federation of SubPostmasters for help."

Jo emphasised the false claims made during the investigation, stating: "They are going to get you for false accounting, so plead guilty, remortgage and pay all the money back, and we must not mention Horizon, as a condition of it."

This revelation raised questions about the integrity of the investigation, with the investigator himself acknowledging a lack of evidence for theft.

A collective tragedy

Dr Neil Hudgell, executive chairman of Hudgell Solicitors, highlighted the broader impact of the scandal.

"There are tragic stories of people who have lost liberties or lost their minds. There are all those sorts of intangible losses."

He pointed out that Jo's parents died in significant debt before she was exonerated, emphasising the enduring financial suffering that extends beyond the immediate consequences of the scandal.

The larger picture

Alan Bates, representing the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance, underscored the gravity of the situation.

"The group consists of about 555. Over the years, when they were serving sub-postmasters, they paid in the order of £8.5 million back to Post Office from stated shortfalls. That is without anything else, such as the loss of their businesses and all the rest of it."

Mr Bates raised concerns about the Post Office's accounting practices, stating: "One of the big concerns it had, and which all of us had, was the suspense accounts. No one could ever get to the bottom of these suspense accounts or find out what was in them, what Post Office did with them or how they recorded them, but that money must have gone somewhere."

False promises and shared trauma

The revelation that investigators misled victims by claiming they were the only ones facing such issues drew gasps from the committee.

Jo recalled: "When we were interviewed, they told us all that it had never happened to anybody else."

Ms Ghani pressed further, and Jo confirmed: "I remember the first time it was said was in 2006 when they came round to my house to look for money."

Ms. Ghani emphasised the severity of this deception, stating: "In 2006, you were told categorically you were unique and you were the only one."

Jo Hamilton affirmed: "Yes. A lie – a complete lie."

Legal fees and unjust imbalance

Alan Bates revealed the staggering legal costs incurred by the Post Office.

"I do not know exactly but it must be well over £100 million, easily."

He expressed concern about the stark contrast between the Post Office's legal resources and the sub-postmasters seeking justice.

Call for independent compensation body

In a final plea for justice, Jo suggested that an independent body, separate from the Post Office, could facilitate compensation efforts.

"Yes, or the JFSA. They could not be more supportive if you reach out to them. We are all human. We have all been through it and we know the process."

The heartbreaking testimonies of Jo in 2021, and others since, have brought to light the immense human cost of the Post Office and Horizon scandal, prompting calls for accountability, transparency, and swift action to rectify the injustices endured by countless sub-postmasters.