Another death in the shadow of the Post Office IT scandal

By Tony Collins

Journalist Nick Wallis reported yesterday on the death of Dawn O’Connell, a Post Office manager in Northolt whom the Post Office prosecuted for theft and false accounting after an unexplained deficit shown on the institution’s Fujitsu-designed Horizon branch accounting system.

She died in September last year, aged 57. Her son Matthew and brother Mark were in the Court of Appeal yesterday. An appeal against her criminal conviction is being advanced or continued in Matthew’s name.

Ben Gordon QC told the three judges who are hearing the Horizon-related appeals,

“My Lord, in the years following her conviction in 2008, and the serving of her suspended sentence, Ms O’Connell’s health, both physical and mental, declined dramatically. According to her family and loved ones, her personality also changed, irrevocably. She became increasingly isolated, ultimately reclusive, as described by her family, and struggled desperately to deal with the stigma of her conviction. 

“She suffered, my Lord, with severe bouts of depression. She did receive treatment, medication and counselling, but she sunk inexorably into alcoholism. In her latter and final years, my Lord, I understand that Ms O’Connell made repeated attempts upon her own life. In September of last year, her body succumbed to the damage caused by her sustained abuse of alcohol and she died tragically at the age of 57.

“My Lord, on behalf of her son, her brother, and all her surviving family members and friends, I feel compelled to tender to the court their sincere regret and deep anguish that Dawn is not here today to hear her case being argued.”

There are other deaths in the shadow of the Post Office IT scandal.

Martin Griffiths

The widow of a sub-postmaster Martin Griffiths has written to the government inquiry into the Horizon system.  She said that in 2013, after unexplained shortages shown on Horizon, she and Martin had to pay the Post Office £102,000. The couple used savings and borrowed money. Martin’s parents contributed £62,000. At the time of the trauma of trying to find the money, there was an armed robbery at the branch post office where Martin was attacked with a crow bar. The robbers made off with more than £10,000. “Martin was treated horrendously by the Post Office after suffering this ordeal and was told he was to pay back the money stolen in the robbery,” said his widow’s statement. A few months later Martin was dead. He walked deliberately into the path of an oncoming bus. “He was a proud, strong, clever man, a very able sportsman in his time, a loving husband and a fantastic father to his two children. The Post Office took all this away from us.”

Fiona Cowan

With a friend, Fiona Cowan ran a local post office that her businessman husband Phil had bought in Edinburgh. After unexplained deficits of more than £30,000 appeared in 2004, the post office was closed and Fiona was asked how soon she could repay the money.

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. Phil subsequently joined Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance and was among about 550 former sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses who sued the Post Office. They won their case in 2019 but the Post Office’s £57.75m settlement, after £46m legal costs, was not nearly enough to cover the litigants’ Horizon-related losses.

Phil said of events at their post office that they “had a huge contribution to her passing away. It had a massive effect on her.”

Julian Wilson

Nick Wallis interviewed Julian Wilson in December 2014 alongside his wife Karen in a village hall in Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, where the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance met for the first time in 2009. Julian was a founder member of the Alliance. Wallis reported on his blog,  

“Karen stood there with tears streaming down her face as Julian explained in his measured, Hampshire burr how problems with the computer system at their Post Office in Astwood Bank had caused their lives to fall apart.”

Wallis said there was never a trace of bitterness about Julian. “He accepted things with great patience even though he was still in danger of losing his house because of the Post Office’s pursuit of him.”

Julian found out he had terminal cancer towards the end of 2015. “This summer he deteriorated rapidly,” says Wallis in 2016.

One of the comments on Wallis’s blog says of Julian,

“He carried on campaigning against the Post Office until he had no strength left to fight and I made him a promise – in the last few days of his life – that I would keep going along with the JFSA [Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance] until we got our long-overdue justice.

No sympathy, no regrets

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS] which funds the Post Office, has agreed to pay compensation to some former sub-postmasters and not others.

Yesterday in the House of Commons MP Kate Osborne referred to “two tiers of justice”.  She asked BEIS junior minister Paul Scully, who is MP for Sutton and Cheam in Surrey, if he agrees that, if justice is to be served, every victim of the Post Office IT scandal must have their claim validated under the same terms.

In reply, Scully gave no apology and expressed no sympathy for sub-postmasters affected by the scandal. He repeated his position that the settlement in 2019 was “full and final”.

Comment

None of the above stories of family tragedies seem to have any effect on government ministers, Whitehall or Post Office executives. This week in the Court of Appeal, the Post Office is involved in esoteric legal arguments over whether the prosecutions of sub-postmasters were an affront to the public conscience. The Post Office’s QC spent much of yesterday arguing that its prosecutions in most cases were not such an affront.

The Post Office appears to be following the same legal strategy as it adopted several years ago when it opposed the group litigation. It argued then that sub-postmaster cases ought not to be looked at in a generalised way. It made a similar argument yesterday.

But the Post Office has never described its actions against sub-postmasters as a scandal. Indeed, as former sub-postmistress Jo Hamilton said of the Post Office on BBC R4’s Today programme on Monday, “Going forward, their attitude still hasn’t changed. They are still fighting people.”

Scully and his officials at the Department for BEIS can find money to compensate some sub-postmasters but not others. Are they punishing the 550 litigants because they dared to sue the Post Office, thus exposing the Horizon IT scandal, creating extra work for the Department for BEIS, embarrassing civil servants who were supposed to oversee the public-owned institution and adding to the risk of having to pay just amounts of compensation?

Repentance? There is little sign of it yet. 

How many more victims will die while the scandal continues? It would be shocking if ministers and officials had an unconscious or knowing strategy of stretching out a resolution to make it less likely contingencies for compensating the 550 litigants will materialise.

**

The sister of Martin Griffiths has written a moving account of the months before her late brother’s death

Nick Wallis’ reports on Dawn O’Connell, Julian Wilson and Fiona Cowan are among the many examples of his high standards of journalism:

Julian Wilson

Fiona Cowan

Dawn O’Connell

2 responses to “Another death in the shadow of the Post Office IT scandal

  1. Thank you, Tony.

    I’m too upset to even read the testimony of the victims and the pain of their grieving loved ones.
    We appear to be a shameful country that tolerates third rate bureaucrats in positions of authority.
    We are, or soon shall, pay the price for our civic apathy.
    But, many thanks to you, Nick Wallis, Tom Witherow and one or two others for keeping this scandalous matter in the spotlight.

    Like

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