The inquiry into wrongful convictions must put former sub-postmasters at its heart, a barrister says.
The Post Office scandal which saw sub-postmasters wrongly convicted for fraud ruined lives, a top lawyer has said.
Barrister Jason Beer QC said former sub-postmasters and mistresses’ stories should be at the heart of an inquiry.
“Lives were ruined, families torn apart, families were made homeless or destitute,” he said.
The cases constitute the most widespread miscarriage of justice in British legal history.
Between 2000 and 2014, more than 700 sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of theft, fraud and false accounting due to a flaw in the Horizon computer system.
The inquiry – which is expected to run for the rest of this year – will look at whether the Post Office knew about faults in the IT system and will also ask how staff shouldered the blame.
A total of 72 former sub-postmasters have had their names cleared so far.
In his opening remarks, Sir Wyn Williams, the retired High Court judge who is leading the inquiry, expressed thanks to the 50 to 60 witnesses he expects to hear oral evidence from in the coming weeks.
Sir Wyn said he sought to understand “the scale and nature of the harm” done to so many.
“These hearings would not be taking place at all were it not for the witnesses who have agreed to give up their valuable time to publicly relive what must be very distressing memories and events.”
The inquiry will also examine whether staff at software firm Fujitsu, which developed the Horizon software to complete tasks such as transactions, accounting and stocktaking, knew the system had flaws while data from it was used in court to convict sub-postmasters.
The judge will also hear evidence on why sub-postmasters and postmistresses were singled out and whether they have been justly compensated, as well as analysing at least 100 written statements.
Mr Beer pointed out that some former sub-postmasters had passed away before the inquiry started.
“It is about people whose mental and physical health has been impacted, people whose marriages and partnerships have deteriorated or failed, about people who have thought about taking their own lives and in some cases took their own lives,” he said.
Ahead of the inquiry, Baljit Sethi, who will be the first witness to give evidence on Monday, told the BBC he was looking forward to it.
“What the Post Office has done to us – and to many of my colleagues – is unforgiveable,” he said. “The people who did this should be brought to justice.”
His wife Anjana, who also helped run two branches near Romford in Essex, said she now felt “we can see some light at the end of this dark tunnel”.
One branch had no problems at all, but the second one showed a hole in the accounts of £17,000, which they were asked to cover out of their own pocket. The Sethis were never charged but still faced a financial and emotional nightmare.
Their son Amit added: “I want accountability and those who suffered should be compensated appropriately.
“That’s it – then we’ll draw a line under it.”
The inquiry will also hear evidence from witnesses in Leeds and Cardiff.
“I cannot stress enough the importance of me understanding the scale and nature of the harm which has bee caused to so many individuals,” Sir Wyn said.