A High Court dispute over the Post Office Horizon IT system is expected to cost tens of millions of pounds. But what is the human cost of delaying the outcome?
Tomorrow a High Court judge will consider an application by the Post Office to recuse – remove – himself from a series of trials that relate to the Post Office’s Horizon IT system. The Post Office accuses him of bias.
The Post Office’s application means that the second of four trials is currently suspended. A final outcome of the various hearings, after appeals, could be years away.
Will any delayed final outcome have an effect on the 600 or so sub-postmasters who are part of the litigation?
It is a concern expressed by the judge in the case, Sir Peter Fraser, QC who is head of the High Court’s Technology and Construction Court. In his 1,100-paragraph judgement delivered last month after the first trial, he said,
“Even on that intended timetable, some Claimants [sub-postmasters] may be waiting far longer than is ideal to have their claims fully resolved either in their favour, or against them.
“Some of the Claimants are retired; some are elderly; some have criminal convictions under review by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
“Nobody involved in this litigation is getting any younger as time passes. The Post Office itself is under a cloud in respect of these unresolved allegations and I consider it to be an obvious point that resolution of this litigation as soon as possible is in the interests of all the parties – all the Claimants and the Post Office – in the interests of justice and the wider public interest.”
Is the Post Office trying its best to expedite an outcome? Mr Justice Fraser suggested the opposite. His judgement said,
“The Post Office has appeared determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can.” [Par 544].
Separately, the judge said,
“It does appear to me that the Post Office in particular has resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can, and certainly throughout 2017 and well into 2018.” [Par 14]
The judgement referred to the Post Office’s “attritional approach of the Post Office to this litigation”. [Par 569]
If the judge is right and if the Post Office board is determined to make the litigation as difficult and expensive as it can, what of the human cost of any delays taking into account the age of some of those involved and the hopes of those with criminal convictions whose cases are under review?
Journalist Nick Wallis who is covering the High Court trials reports that he has been told that some sub-postmasters remain “traumatised” by their experience of losses shown on the Horizon system that they were required to make good.
Some of the sub-postmasters, says Wallis, “are having to work long past retirement age” with all their life savings taken to pay for losses that are now in dispute as part of the sub-postmasters versus Post Office litigation.
The Post Office contends that Horizon is robust and that it was justified in holding sub-postmasters responsible for discrepancies and shortfalls shown on the system. The sub-postmasters claim damages saying the Post Office unjustly required payments for losses shown on an imperfect Horizon system. They argue the losses were not real shortfalls.
For one justice campaigner, Julian Wilson, a former sub-postmaster from Redditch in Worcestershire, time ran out in 2016. Nick Wallis knew Wilson as a gentle, generous and good humoured man. The Post Office prosecuted Wilson for false accounting after unexplained shortfalls on the Horizon system.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission was reviewing his conviction when he died.
Wilson had been sentenced to 200 hours of community service and had to pay the Post Office £27,500 plus £3,000 costs. He told the Daily Telegraph in 2013,
“Initially, when there were discrepancies [on the Horizon system], my wife and I were putting the money in. As the discrepancies got larger and larger, we were no longer able to afford it.
“I told my line managers on several occasions that I was concerned about this, and the comment I got back from them was: ‘Don’t worry, the system will put itself right.’
“But it never did, so I was taken to court. I hadn’t taken a penny. Everything we’ve got has gone. In the last few weeks, we’ve been doing car boot sales to try to get some money to put some food on the table. My wife even had to sell her engagement ring.”
It is by no means certain that all of the 600 or so former sub-postmasters who are fighting for justice will live to know the final outcome of the trials.
If sympathetic to its former sub-postmasters, the Post Office could settle the litigation or seek expedited judgements. On the other hand, the Post Office could, given its deep pockets as a public institution, seek to replace trial judges and appeal judgements. If so, a final outcome could be delayed with no end date in sight,
Business minister Kelly Tolhurst MP has responsibility for postal affairs. In deciding whether or not to intervene, will she weigh up the cost in human terms of a dispute that began more than 10 years before the start of the High Court Horizon trials?
MPs called the Post Office Horizon dispute a national scandal but to the family of Julian Wilson it is a tragedy. They live with the knowledge that he went to his grave a near-bankrupt convicted criminal whose wife ended up selling her engagement ring because of events that followed losses shown on a branch accounting system.
Post Office lacked humanity in treatment of sub-postmasters, says peer – Computer Weekly’s coverage of the Post Office’s trial