The Post Office has lost all four High Court rulings (so far) in a series of hearings over its Horizon IT system. There are still three trials to go. With appeals, the number of hearings and judgements, and the duration of the case, are indeterminate.
How is the publicly-funded Post Office paying for litigation that is, in essence, its defence of the Horizon system?
By Tony Collins
Labour MP Kevan Jones has this week asked a series of pertinent questions about costs and the Post Office’s dispute with former sub-postmasters over the Horizon branch accounting system.
His Parliamentary questions are likely to draw the attention of business secretary Greg Clark to the increasing costs of a High Court trial in which more than 550 former sub-postmasters seek compensation and damages from the Post Office. They say they were made to pay for unexplained shortfalls shown on Horizon that could have been caused by bugs or other system weaknesses.
The Post Office says Horizon is robust and the shortfalls were the result of dishonesty or mistakes by sub-postmasters or their staff. The Post Office has pursued sub-postmasters for “debts” shown on the Horizon system of millions of pounds in total.
Kevin Jones’ questions follow a judgement last month in which a High Court judge, Mr Justice Peter Fraser, referred to the Post Office’s approach to the costs of the litigation.
“The Post Office has appeared determined to make this litigation, and therefore resolution of this intractable dispute, as difficult and expensive as it can,” said the judge.
Since that judgement, costs have risen further because the Post Office has decided to appeal last month’s judgement. The Post Office has also applied for the judge to remove himself from three remaining trials over the Horizon system. which caused the second trial to be suspended.
This week it has emerged that costs, which could run into tens millions of pounds, are set to rise again. Although the judge has refused permission for the Post Office to appeal his refusal to remove – “recuse” himself, the Post Office can ask the Court of Appeal to grant that permission. BBC legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg has tweeted,
Kevan Jones has asked the business secretary Greg Clark:
- what steps he is taking to ensure the Government is held accountable for the decisions and actions of Post Office Limited in the handling of postmasters’ problems with Horizon.
- whether public money has been used to pay costs involved in the ongoing dispute with postmasters since 2000.
- whether the Lord Chancellor will determine the extent of any conflict of interest on the part of Tim Parker by reason of his dual roles of (a) the Chairman of Post Office Limited; and (b) the Independent Chair of the HM Courts and Tribunal Service Board.
- what the anticipated increased cost implications are for Post Office Limited in its dealing with serving Subpostmasters following the High Court decision handed down on 15 March 2019.
- whether the Post Office has ever taken into profit from its suspense accounts any unreconciled sums recovered from Subpostmasters.
Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, founder of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and lead claimant in the case, told Computer Weekly,
“This move by Post Office Ltd to have the judge recused was just another act by an organisation abusing the use of public money to litigate a valid case into the ground in order to protect the reputations of just a few individuals and a dysfunctional business.”
The Post Office said, “We will be seeking to appeal the judgment on the recusal application and to continue to vigorously defend this litigation. We believe the overall litigation remains the best opportunity to resolve long-standing issues in order to ensure a stable and sustainable Post Office network for the benefit of the communities who rely on our services every single day.”
Freeths, solicitors for the sub-postmasters, has submitted an application for the Post Office to pay the legal costs in the first trial, likely to be for several million pounds.
Kevan Jones is right to ask questions about the publicly-funded Post Office and costs. The Post Office appears to have no cap on how much it is prepared to spend on the litigation; and it has shown little or no concern about how many years the case will continue.
Institutions, particularly public ones, have a duty to spend money wisely. Not cutting your losses when you are losing a series of High Court hearings is poor judgement.
The Post Office has a choice: continue to pour money into a case that looks, on the basis of evidence so far, to be unwinnable. Or pay the millions it is giving lawyers to its former sub-postmasters instead.
It’s a decision the Post Office will not make on its own – in which case Kevan Jones and his Parliamentary colleagues must continue their campaign for justice.