By Tony Collins
Congratulations to Alan Bates whose remarkable campaign for justice has achieved all he said it would 15 years ago.
In a letter to Computer Weekly in 2004 Bates said,
“I fully expect it to take a number of years to bring Post Office Ltd to account for what they have done to us, but we are determined to do it.”
Now his feat in bringing the truth into the public domain against all odds has become one of the most momentous campaigns for justice in modern times.
The Post Office had a total of four Queen’s Counsels, two major firms of solicitors and seemingly limitless funding as a publicly-owned institution. The judge described its legal spending as “very high, even by the standards of commercial litigation between very high value blue chip companies”.
On Bates’side was a group former sub-postmasters who acted as lead claimants in the case, a technical expert, a former Fujitsu whistleblower and a remarkably effective legal team brought together by Freeths solicitors with venture funding. The judge Sir Peter Fraser found the evidence given by the Bates side helpful and credible. He praised the quality of evidence of the witnesses and the balanced assistance to the court of the expert witness.
On the Post Office side, the judge questioned the truthfulness of evidence given by the Post Office’s witnesses. He found numerous flaws in the evidence of its expert witness. The judge also expressed concerns about Fujitsu, supplier of the Horizon system whose alleged robustness was at the heart of the dispute.
The conduct of the Post Office may, with the advent of a new Parliament, be the subject of debate, questions and a possible inquiry. There will be questions about how the Post Office was allowed to behave the way it did.
The judge said,
“The Post Office’s approach to evidence, even despite their considerable resources which are being liberally deployed at considerable cost, amounts to attack and disparagement of the claimants individually and collectively, together with the wholly unsatisfactory evidence of Fujitsu personnel …”
But for the court case, evidence that the Horizon system could have caused the shortfalls for which sub-postmasters were blamed and, in some cases, prosecuted, would not have emerged.
Bates and his team have held the Post Office to account in a way in which ministers and the civil service failed. During the 15 year dispute, some have died including campaigning former sub-postmaster Julian Wilson. As the livelihoods of sub-postmasters were lost, family homes sold, marriages dissolved and traumatised individuals tried to pick up the pieces of shattered lives, no minister or civil servant showed even a hint of a sign of wanting to hold the Post Office to account.
Former sub-postmasters were blamed and imprisoned for shortfalls that could have been caused by Horizon systems bugs or transactions inserted from a remote location but ministers and civil servants who were responsible for the Post Office considered the prosecutions to be none of their business.
MPs called it a national scandal before anything was known of the conduct of the Post Office and its witnesses at the trials.
The Post Office has issued an apology that journalist Nick Wallis, who has covered the trials and kept the dispute in the public eye, described as “less than fulsome”.
The apology contains no acknowledgement of the Post Office’s conduct and behaviours in court this year, which suggests that, underneath a few changes of rules, procedures and contracts, the Post Office will continue to be culturally and attitudinally exactly the same organisation it was when Bates started his campaign in 2004.
One of the striking characteristics of the Post Office throughout the years has been an absence of humility or contrition. It remains a striking facet today, an impression reinforced by its carefully-worded apology.
Indeed, the judge refers to the Post Office’s “institutional” problems. He said,
“The approach by the Post Office to the evidence of someone such as Mr Latif [a former sub-postmaster] demonstrates a simple institutional obstinacy or refusal to consider any possible alternatives to their view of Horizon, which was maintained regardless of the weight of factual evidence to the contrary.
“That approach by the Post Office was continued, even though now there is also considerable expert evidence to the contrary as well (and much of it agreed expert evidence on the existence of numerous bugs).
“This approach by the Post Office has amounted, in reality, to bare assertions and denials that ignore what has actually occurred, at least so far as the witnesses called before me in the Horizon Issues trial are concerned. It amounts to the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the earth is flat.”
At another point in his ruling, the judge refers to the Post Office’s “extreme sensitivity” that seemed to verge at times on “institutional paranoia”. He was referring to “any information that may throw doubt on the reputation of Horizon, or expose it to further scrutiny”. There are no signs this defensiveness has gone.
The judge also refers to a request by the then CEO for a taskforce to investigate points made by a critic of the Post Office Tim McCormack. The CEO’s request said,
“Can I have a report that takes the points in order and explains them. Tim McCormack is campaigning against PO and Horizon. I had another note from him this am which Tom will forward, so you are both in the loop. We must take him seriously and professionally.”
But a reply the same day from a senior manager said, “Can you stand down on this please? [A redacted section then follows.] Any specific actions and I will revert. My apologies.”
The judge was mystified. He said,
“ I can think of no justifiable reason why the Post Office, institutionally, would not want to address the Chief Executive’s points and investigate as she initially intended, and find out for itself the true situation of what had occurred.”
The Post Office’s brief apology gives no hint of any change to the inexplicable attitudes that led to McCormack’s points not being answered. It doesn’t explain the Post Office’s attempts to stop disclosure of relevant information in the case. Or its attempt this year to have removed the one person able to hold it to account – the judge Sir Peter Fraser.
And it doesn’t explain the bizarre notion of ruining hundreds of lives to defend a corporate computer system.
What the briefness of the Post Office’s apology does explain, however, is the small amount it is willing to pay in compensation. Nick Wallis reports that the 550 former sub-postmasters who were part of the case may receive £8-11m between them after legal fees and venture funders are paid. That will represent a large shortfall on the money the sub-postmasters lost.
But the funders deserve payback for the risks they took and the legal team deserves its fees for its profound understanding of the nuances of the case, the depth of its investigation, its appointment of an outstanding QC to represent the claimants and the sensitivity and discernment in the way he conducted the case.
What the Bates victory does achieve is worth more than money: innocents may have their names cleared and their criminal records expunged. They will be able to go abroad without being pulled aside because of their record. Their reputations in the community will be officially restored.
Not only have 1,000 or more former sub-postmasters been vindicated but the practices, conduct and behaviours of the Post Office as an institution have been exposed. The credibility of the evidence of some of its most senior named individuals has been undermined in the rulings.
Soon the questions in Parliament will begin. The demands for accountability have yet to be met.
Meanwhile Bates and all the other sub-postmasters caught up in a campaign they would have loved never to have needed can dwell on a victory that is surprising, remarkable and historic given the seemingly-invulnerable and implacable institutional attitudes and cultures that opposed them.
Nick Wallis has an excellent account of the latest ruling: They did it.
Computer Weekly has an exclusive interview with Freeths that explains the compensation amount of about £58m.
Campaigner Tim McCormack’s blog.