By Tony Collins
Have Post Office officials, despite a series of highly critical High Court judgements against them, escaped masterfully from what Boris Johnson called a “scandal”?
BBC Radio Wales has broadcast an excellent documentary on the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. It features Noel Thomas who had devoted his life to the Post Office, first as a postman for 32 years and then as a postmaster for 12 years.
He worked his way up since the age of 17. But one Thursday morning at 7.30am the life he’d built up over decades began to fall apart. A Post Office investigations team wanted to interview him about “having his hands in the till”.
His denials counted for nothing. Investigators insisted he had taken money. The Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system supplied by Fujitsu showed shortfalls of £52,000. The Post Office prosecuted him and he was given a nine-month jail sentence in 2006.
After prison, Thomas was called a thief in the supermarket. His children suffered taunts that their father had been to prison.
An unsympathetic Post Office chased Thomas for debts shown on Horizon and he went bankrupt. He ended up losing £250,000; and all the while nobody at the Post Office told him that Horizon screens could show non-existent shortfalls without any fault on the part of the sub-postmaster.
In the years to come, as Thomas tried to come to terms with his new life as a family man who was now a convicted criminal, he learned that he was not alone: the Post Office had demanded hundreds of sub-postmasters make good inexplicable shortfalls shown on Horizon.
But for Thomas and other victims of the Horizon IT scandal things began to look up in March 2017 when, led by campaigning former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, they won the consent of the High Court for a group litigation against the Post Office.
The litigation was a clear success for Bates, 550 other claimants and their legal team. By the time the two sides sat around the mediation table late last year, the judge had made several rulings, largely in the favour of the sub-postmasters.
Would the judge’s criticisms put the Post Office on the defensive at the mediation? His main judgement had criticised the Post Office’s “oppressive” behaviour in its dealings with sub-postmasters. Mr Justice Fraser also criticised the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation: given the high costs of the litigation, it was perhaps extraordinary that the Post Office was said by the judge to have “resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can …”
It was indeed obvious to the sub-postmasters that the more the publicly-funded Post Office delayed the proceedings, the greater the risk its opponents would run out of litigation funding.
Was this fair?
The judge had also found that the Post Office tried to mislead the High Court and keep relevant information from being heard. The appeal court likened the Post Office to a Victorian mill-owner.
Now, as the two sides sat around the mediation table, the High Court was about to publish an entirely new ruling. It would say that sub-postmasters had been forced into paying shortfalls shown on a Fujitsu Horizon system that had hidden bugs and systemic weaknesses.
The Post Office had spent more than a decade denying that these faults existed and had given misleadingly reassuring statements to Parliament and the media. The Post Office had prosecuted dozens of sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon while not saying that Fujitsu engineers could alter branch accounts without the sub-postmasters’ knowledge.
The new ruling would find that the Post Office’s own expert witness was partisan, as were some of the other Post Office witnesses.
If all this was a cue for a contrite Post Office to make amends at mediation, there was little sign of it. It emerged from the mediation paying barely the sub-postmasters’ litigation costs.
Indeed, the £57.75m settlement figure would not have covered the sub-postmasters’ costs had there not been voluntary fee and other reductions on the part of the group’s legal team and a company that provided loans for the litigation.
These reductions, which were made out of sympathy for the former sub-postmasters, allowed a fund of about £11.5m from the £57.75m to be distributed among the 550.
But the fund will pay only a small percentage of losses. And it doesn’t pay compensation for ruined lives.
“Scandal” says Boris Johnson
The prime minister refers to the whole matter as a scandal. He spoke in the House of Commons of the “disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers”.
But a Post Office statement to BBC Radio Wales offered no hope of any further money for the 550. It referred to its shortcomings as in the “past”. The statement said,
“A comprehensive final settlement was jointly agreed by the Post Office and the claimants in the group litigation last year. We apologise to those affected by our past shortcomings and we are continuing to address these directly…”
That the settlement leaves Thomas with only a fraction of the £250,000 he has lost – and nothing in compensation – is not the concern of the Post Office or its parent department BEIS. organisation.
How did the Post Office extricate itself relatively painlessly mid-way through an embarrassing litigation, in which its competence, credibility and conduct were questioned repeatedly by a High Court judge?
It may be thought generally that, in mediation, the two sides enter talks to settle their differences on equal terms.
Not in this case.
On one side was a publicly funded institution. The other side comprised small businessmen and women who were funded by limited, expensive loans.
Worse for the sub-postmasters, the Post Office had already made decisions during the litigation that showed it was prepared to add to costs for both sides. Its decisions included applying for the removal of the judge near the end of a lengthy trial. Had its application succeeded, it would have necessitated the costly trial being abandoned and a new one started under a different judge.
James Hartley of solicitors Freeths, which represented sub-postmasters in the litigation, gave an interview to Computer Weekly shortly after the mediation settlement was announced in December last year.
He said that if his side had carried on with the litigation it was likely the sub-postmasters would have ended up with nothing. He said his side had obtained the best deal possible but sub-postmasters would not recover anything like their full losses.
“This was always understood by everyone because we knew the group action would have a lot of costs,” said Hartley. Had a settlement not been reached, the two further trials planned would have needed more funding.
“Even if we had got that funding, which is not certain, for every £1m we got from the case, £3m would have to go back to the funders. Every month that had gone on in the case, the value of damages available to claimants would have gone down, to the point where they would have got nothing even if we had won.”
The Post Office has made the point in its public statements that the settlement figure was agreed by both sides. But mediation was not conducted on an equal financial footing.
In a different context, a few months before the mediation, Mr Justice Fraser had commented on the Post Office’s power when compared to the sub-postmasters.
He had said in his “Common Issues” judgement of March 2019,
“There is no doubt that the Post Office is in an extraordinarily powerful position compared to each and every one of its SPMs [sub-postmasters][. It appears to wield that power with a degree of impunity.”
Did the Post Office still wield power with impunity?
At least Thomas, if he is not to recover his losses or receive any compensation, can look forward to having his criminal record removed – his name cleared.
Or could even this be denied him?
There is no time pressure on the state to overturn wrongful convictions. The simplest solution would be to set aside convictions en masse on the basis that all the prosecutions arose out of untrustworthy shortfalls shown on a computer system that was not as robust as prosecutors claimed.
But the state could, in theory, handle each wrongful conviction referred to appeal separately, review thousands of pages of documents in each case, and eventually overturn convictions when some of the falsely accused are no longer alive to see justice.
This may indeed be the state’s preferred route although there have already been years of delays in reviewing the cases.
Whether the P9st Office would prefer a group or individual review of convictions at appeal hearings is unclear. What is obvious, though, is that the longer it takes to quash convictions, the more it delays any civil claims for damages and compensation arising out of wrongful prosecutions.
A Houdini escape?
Nearly 20 years after Alan Bates had his contract to run a local post office in Wales terminated without reason when he queried apparent phantom shortfalls on Horizon, he is still seeking justice.
He has raised tens of millions in litigation funding, won the right to launch a group litigation order and his legal team has proved in the High Court that Horizon was not the robust system the Post Office had claimed.
His team could hardly have been more successful in exposing the inherent institutional failings that led to hundreds of miscarriages of justice.
Why then does justice still elude him?
The Post Office says it is changing. It is learning lessons. It has a new CEO. But the judge’s comments suggested that the Post Office’s resentment of criticism and critics is deeply institutional.
The judge said the Post Office seems to act with impunity. The word “impunity” means acting as if exempt punishment, penalty of harm.
How can a public institution, however many new CEOs it has, change its spots?
Arguably the Post Office remains as financially powerful, dominating and secretive as ever. Recently, it is said to have reached secret settlements with Horizon victims who were not part of Bates’ group litigation.
For Bates and other sub-postmasters, their campaign or justice moves from the High Court to Westminster. But politicians may not, it appears, have the final say.
There is no provision in law to punish prosecuting authorities that prosecute wrongfully. But the public at least has a right to expect that elected politicians will be able to hold prosecuting institutions to account.
Boris Johnson wants an independent inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal, as do MPs, Alan Bates and many others. But does the civil service and particularly the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Post Office’s parent?
Lord Arbuthnot, a long-time campaigner for justice, told BBC Radio Wales that he is heartened by the prime minister’s support for an inquiry.
“I was given enormous heart that the prime minister himself described this as a scandal and he said there would be an independent inquiry.
” Now the rats will try to get at that. They will try to make it less independent. They will try to bring it under the Department for Business and Enterprise and that is something I hope the Prime Minister, who seems to have a good deal of sway in this government will be able to resist”.
Noel Thomas, Alan Bates and other former sub-postmasters sued the Post Office seeking damages for financial loss, deceit, duress, unconscionable dealing, harassment and unjust enrichment.
But the civil service seems not to accept that any of these things merit an independent inquiry.
It is extraordinary that a publicly-owned institution has been established in the High Court to have been behind hundreds of grievous miscarriages of justice and yet the victims have not received a full refund of their losses let alone compensation. And those responsible have not been held to account.
Unless Parliament intervenes and orders the setting up of an independent inquiry, it is clear that Goliath, with the support of civil servants at BEIS, will win in the end.
Thank you to Tim McCormack whose extensive knowledge and understanding of Post Office affairs never ceases to surprise me.
BBC Panorama – scandal at the Post Office – Monday 23 March