By Tony Collins
The Post Office does not comment on individual cases. Its general position is that people who own and run local offices under contract to the Post Office take responsibility for any deficits shown on the Horizon branch accounting system.
Fiona Cowan had such a deficit,. With a friend, she ran a local post office that her businessman husband Phil had bought in Edinburgh. They owned the local post office site but ran it under contract to the Post Office.
After the deficit appeared, the post office was closed and Fiona was asked how soon she could repay £30,000.
Phil asked if there could be a glitch in the Horizon system. He says he was told that, if so, it would be the only sub post office in the country to have such a problem.
Fiona was charged with false accounting. With no post office, the retail side of their post office business dwindled and Phil sold up at a substantial loss. The Post Office took £30,000 out of a redundancy offer.
Fiona, who suffered from on and off bouts of depression, died of an accidental overdose. She was 47.
Now Forecourt Trader has published an article saying that Phil Cowan has joined the group legal action against the post office.
Phil was quoted as saying, “She [Fiona] went to her grave with this criminal charge hanging over her.”
Forecourt Trader reports that the Post Office did not tell the Cowans that the charges had been dropped. Phil subsequently joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance which, with solicitors Freeths, brought a group action against the Post Office.
An initial High Court judgment in the case is due later this month.
The FT reported last year that the Post Office dismissed Deirdre Connolly, a 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, Connolly 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.
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.
A group legal action by about 560 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses against the Post Office is likely to continue for years if the case goes to appeal. The Post Office has set aside at least £5m in legal fees to fight the case.
It is thought that the Post Office has warned its shareholder – the government – that the legal fees could, ultimately, run into tens of millions of pounds.
The Post Office has said repeatedly that its Horizon system is extremely robust and operates over its entire Post Office network and successfully records millions of transactions each day.
Thank you to journalist Nick Wallis whose Tweet alerted me to the Forecourt Trader article. Wallis is crowdfunded to cover the group legal action in the High Court. He has written extensively on the trial, as has Karl Flinders of Computer Weekly.
Forecourt Trader article on Phil and Fiona Cowan
Thank you, Tony, and thank you, Nick Wallis, for highlighting the grim and tragic aspects of this important issue.
Tens of millions in legal fees and compensation will be paid for by the public.
If there was a robust principle of justice in this country, those responsible for this immoral and incompetent shambles should face trial themselves and, if found guilty, be both penalised with loss of freedom and by forfeiture of their material goods.
At the moment, third rate people are incentivized to seek positions of authority because they see that such will elevate them above accountability and the consequences of their actions.
Very sad for all of us.
Thank you Zara for the comment.