By Tony Collins
The FT reported yesterday on a class action against the Post Office over the “faulty” Horizon IT system.
In an article or more than 1,000 words, it said that 522 former sub-postmasters are involved in the legal action.
A procedural hearing with a managing judge will take place in October 2017, which should lead to a timetable for final resolution by the court.
The FT reported on two families (previously unpublicised cases) whose lives have been devastated by shortfalls shown on the Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system. In one case, the Post Office dismissed Deirdre Connolly, a former sub-postmistress, after an apparent shortfall of £15,600. The alleged deficit was found during an unannounced branch audit.
The FT said that, out of fear, she made up the apparent loss with help from relatives. The Post Office did not prosecute. Her son later attempted suicide, which she attributed to his witnessing the stress she was under.
The FT also reported on a successful businessman, Phil Cowan, whose business ventures included a post office in Edinburgh run by his wife and her friend. He said that a £30,000 deficit shown on the branch electronic ledger account was a factor in his wife’s death from an accidental overdose of anti-depressants, alcohol and cold medicine. She was 47.
He attributed the shortfall to a technical glitch.
Cowan told the FT,
“This situation I know for a fact had a huge contribution to her passing away. It had a massive effect on her.”
In 2015 the Daily Mail reported on Martin Griffiths, a sub-postmaster from Chester, who stepped in front of a bus one morning in September 2013.
An inquest heard that Griffiths, 59, was being pursued by the Post Office over an alleged shortfall of tens of thousands of pounds.
The Post Office reached a settlement with his widow and required the terms of it to be kept confidential.
The legal action between the Post Office and the sub-postmasters could be said to be a simple one, at least from the PO’s perspective. Sub-postmasters signed a contract that held them responsible for losses shown on the branch accounting system (whether or not there was any evidence they gained from the shortfalls).
The Post Office’s lawyers will argue that there is no evidence that Horizon or any of its related elements such as network and communications equipment was to blame for the losses. Under its contract with sub-postmasters, the Post Office is entitled to pursue the former sub-postmasters for the losses.
It is this contract that is the main point of legal relevance, rather than claims by sub-postmasters that the losses were not real, that they didn’t steal any money and have had their lives, and their family’s lives, ruined by the Post Office’s actions against them.
For the sub-postmasters, lawyers will argue that errors were caused by software bugs and inadequate training and support. The FT article referred to a “pattern of bullying and intimidation by the Post Office dating back to shortly after Horizon was rolled out”.
The Post Office’s enforcement of its contract with sub-postmasters after discrepancies were found on Horizon raises the question of whether the law in this case has little – or perhaps nothing – to do with right and wrong.
The Post Office may have a contractual right to pursue former sub-postmasters for shortfalls shown on Horizon.
But does the Post Office’s conformance with the law – its contractual right to take action – make the action right?
In Vermont, it’s unlawful for women to be fitted with false teeth without the written permission of their husbands. It would be perfectly legal for Vermont’s lawyers to prosecute offenders. But being lawful to prosecute doesn’t make it right to do so.
It was perfectly lawful for the state to prosecute Alan Turing in 1952 (and Oscar Wilde in 1895) for homosexual acts. That the prosecutions were lawful (and were possible factors in their premature deaths) didn’t make the prosecutions right.
If NASA made its space missions conditional on a requirement that astronauts sign a contract that made them responsible for anything that went wrong, they would probably sign – because of their overwhelming desire to go into space. But if something went wrong would it be right for NASA to enforce the contact (assuming the astronauts survived?).
It can be lawful to enforce a contract but wrong to do so.
Post Office happy?
The Post Office (which is still publicly owned) sounds relaxed about going to court. The FT quoted the Post Office as saying,
“We welcome [the group litigation order] as offering the best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved.
“We will be continuing to address the allegations through the court’s processes and will not otherwise comment on litigation whilst it is ongoing.”
Even at this late stage, it’s not too late for the Post Office’s directors to ponder on the matter of right and wrong rather than go ahead with a court case merely because they can.
They have the power to exacerbate the devastation for hundreds of families. They also have the power to withdraw from the court case, settle and reduce the risk of any further personal tragedies.
This is where the distinction between enforcing a legal right and doing the right thing couldn’t be clearer.