By Tony Collins
A Post Office has closed – temporarily perhaps – because the postmistress is refusing to spend more of her own money balancing the books on the Horizon IT system.
The York Press has published an article on the concerns of Wendy Martin who runs a Post Office branch in Clifton, York.
A broadband connection from her branch to the Horizon system goes down regularly, which she says stops payments being processed centrally. This has left her business hundreds of pounds down at the end of the month and her covering the shortfall.
Under her contract with the Post Office – and all such contracts – subpostmasters are responsible for any losses shown on Horizon.
About 150 sub-postmasters have complained to the Post Office about shortfalls which they say were accounting discrepancies related to Horizon problems rather than theft or fraud.
The Post Office’s legal action following cash shortfalls has led to the ruin of dozens of subpostmasters who have lost their livelihoods, been made bankrupt or gone to jail. There were criminal convictions in 43 cases.
Subpostmasters claim the Post Office failed to investigate irregularities properly before launching criminal proceedings.
Wendy Martin has closed her Post Office until the connectivity problem is corrected.
The self-employed postmistress, who has worked in various shops during an 18-year career, says she is concerned that the problem will increase and could leave her paying in more money each month until the shop goes bust.
She told The Press: “The public feel I’m doing them a dis-service because the shop is shut but I could be in a situation where I may end up in prison.
“It costs me £400 just to keep the shop closed and if I keep putting in the money I will go bust. I hope the Post Office takes this seriously and come out to sort this, but until they do I’ll have to stay shut.”
Since the York Press article was published on 29 August Wendy Martin says the Post Office told her it would be “out asap and will sort this out”. She says she “cannot afford to keep putting money in for lost transactions due to this”.
Some subpostmasters have set up a Facebook page to air some of their grievances.
The Post Office says it does not prosecute people for making innocent mistakes and never has. In response to a BBC Panorama documentary last month on Horizon and the complaints of subpostmasters, the Post Office said:
“There is no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing at these Post Office branches. There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money.
“We are sorry if a small number of people feel they have not been treated fairly in the past but we have gone to enormous lengths to re-investigate their cases, doing everything and more than we committed to do…
“The Horizon computer system is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.”
John Munton, a director of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution, which is mediating in the disputes between the Post Office and subpostmasters, has written to the Post Office on the results of his review of the mediation so far.
Of the 20 cases that have gone through mediation, 8 have been resolved which is 40%. Munton says this settlement rate is “somewhat lower than the average settlement rate that we see across all the mediations that CEDR conducts”.
In an average year its settlement rate “tends to range between 65% and 75% with a further 10% to 15% of cases resulting in some progression towards final resolution”.
Munton suggests there is a fundamental mismatch between the expectations of the subpostmasters and the object of mediation which is not to award compensation but to achieve an agreement between the parties.
Subpostmasters expect to enter into talks on compensation for their lost livelihoods and money they have paid to the Post Office to cover accounting shortfalls. The Post Office’s representatives make it clear they need credible evidence to justify the claims for compensation.
The mediation process has been more effective, says Munton, “where a continuing contractual relationship is still in place between subpostmasters and the Post Office, and where both parties would like it to continue.”
The Post Office, in mediation and its entire approach to the complaints of subpostmasters, is taking an empathetic but legalistic approach. To subpostmasters who say Horizon was responsible for losses, the Post Office’s lawyers say in essence: “Prove it.”
The subpostmasters can prove little or nothing, perhaps because Horizon is not owned or run by them. All the information subpostmasters possess is supplied and owned by the Post Office or its main supplier Fujitsu. The Post Office says there is no evidence that Horizon has caused the discrepancies complained of by the subpostmasters.
This is not like a train crash where there would be an independent statutory investigation, the findings of which would have a statutory authority. In these cases, the Post Office has chosen to commission an independent investigation from forensic accountants Second Sight. The findings have no statutory authority. The Post Office is entitled to reject Second Sight’s findings. And it has.
It is unclear whether all the facts in these cases have surfaced, whether the Post Office still possesses all the potentially relevant data from disputes that date back many years, or whether it has made any mistakes in its interpretations of the facts.
The Post Office will continue to benefit from a purely legalistic approach because subpostmasters may be able to prove that Horizon can go wrong but they will never prove that it did go wrong in their particular case.
Even when statutory investigations take place into public safety incidents, it may take years to find possible or likely causes. And that’s the point. There are only possible or likely causes. In fatal air crashes involving large passenger jets, for example, the outcome is a “probable” cause or “probable” causes.
By requiring evidence of a definite cause or causes of shortfalls, the Post Office is demanding the impossible. On the other hand, why would it pay compensation when subpostmasters cannot prove that Horizon and the Post Office’s training or procedures were at fault?
Perhaps the only sensible way for these disputes to be settled is for lawyers to stand aside and allow managers to resolve cases on the balance of probabilities.
It’s clear to outsiders that 150 subpostmasters have not had criminal intent when, as happened in some cases, they signed off unreconciled accounts as correct. Many are victims of miscarriages of justice and deserve to have adequate compensation and their names cleared. The sooner this happens the sooner the Post Office can reclaim its reputation for fairplay.
If the cases are not settled the campaign for justice could go on indefinitely.
Mediation – letter from Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution to the Post Office. CEDR – mediation review