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Horizon IT trial has a focus on probability theory – but it’s seemingly impossible events that cause some of the worst failures of complex systems

By Tony Collins

Can probability theory explain a single one of the Post Office’s major incidents?

Analysis and comment

One focus of the latest High Court hearings over the Post Office Horizon system has been the likelihood or otherwise of known bugs causing losses for which sub-postmasters were held responsible.

The Post Office argues that Horizon is robust and it has countermeasures in place to ensure any errors with potentially serious consequences are detected and corrected.

So reliable is Horizon – thousands of people use it daily without lasting problems – that the Post Office has expressed no doubts about blaming sub-postmasters for losses shown on the system.

But sub-postmasters argue that they did not steal any money and that spurious losses were shown on a system that was demonstrably imperfect at times.

The arguments and counter-arguments have left journalist Nick Wallis who is covering the trial with this impression …

“What you can’t do is actually get a sense of whether Horizon’s bugs, errors and defects caused discrepancies for which subpostmasters have been held liable…

“The expert answer to whether Horizon is responsible for causing discrepancies in branch accounts appears to be ‘possibly’ or ‘possibly not’.”

As Wallis also points out, there may not be enough information on which to make a definitive judgement.

The Post Office’s own expert has referred to …

“levels of depth and complexity in the way Horizon actually works which the experts have not been able to plumb …”

The expert agreed that it was usually difficult to make categorical negative statements of the form: x or y never happened.

This uncertainty raises questions of about how any judge can decide whether Horizon did or did not cause the losses complained of in the litigation.

As part of its case, the Post Office has used probability theory – a branch of maths – to help demonstrate the robustness of Horizon.

This was some of the evidence given in court …

“And we have to take 50,000, we divide it by 3 million, and what I get from that is I can cancel  all the thousands out and I get 32 x 50/3, so that is about 500.  So it is consistent with one occurrence of a bug to each claimant branch during their tenure.”

Another piece of evidence …

“the chances of the bug occurring in a Claimants’ branch would be about 2 in a million.”

The expert made it clear that statistics are not a substitute for hard facts.

But what when the seemingly impossible occurs?

Adding to the “levels of depth and complexity in the way Horizon actually works which the experts have not been able to plumb” is a layer of further possible uncertainty: whether bugs or complex system-related issues affected branch accounts in ways that were not detected or were not considered possible as part of a complex sequence of apparently random events.

Below is a list of some aircraft accidents involving technology or complex system-related problems where the seemingly impossible or the unanticipated happened.

As these involved a sequence of events that had not been considered possible or were not deemed a serious risk, the system operators (pilots) had not been trained to mitigate the consequences.

In many of the accidents, pilots were blamed initially but investigators found, sometimes after years of tests of systems and equipment, that the aircraft was at fault.

The Post Office in the High Court hearings has compared the robustness of Horizon to aircraft and other systems. The Post Office’s QC compared Horizon’s robustness to “systems that keep aircraft in the air, that run power stations and run banks”.

Banking systems are indeed robust but they do fail sometimes; and when they do,  thousands of customers can be locked out of their accounts for days. as happened at Tesco Bank, RBS and TSB.

Power station IT tends to be designed, tested and implemented, in the UK at least, to defence safety-critical standards that impose a rigour not required of commercial systems such as Horizon.

With aircraft systems, however, it may be worth looking at how similar they are or different to Horizon. As air crash investigations are usually exhaustive in their thoroughness, we, the public, know what has gone wrong because reports are published.

We know, therefore, that some of the worst air crashes are caused by occurrences of the seemingly impossible.

Aircraft manufacturers could not, with any authority or credibility, tell investigators of a series of air crashes that, as they cannot fully understand the complexity of the system, they will have to take it that pilots must be to blame given that the aircraft is demonstrably robust.

That millions of flights take place every year without incident, and planes have triple redundancy in their flight systems and fail-safe measures in place for critical components, would not be good reason to assume pilots must be to blame for crashes.

And imagine telling air crash investigators that they could use probability theory to work out the likelihood of a serious fault causing a particular major incident.

The seemingly impossible occurs – a list

These are some of the most notorious failures of complex aircraft systems where the seemingly impossible happened …

  • Nobody thought it possible that new technology on one of the world’s safest aircraft, the 737 Max, could leave pilots fighting to lift the plane’s nose at the same time as complex systems were inexplicably keeping the nose pitching towards the ground. Probability theory would not have explained what went wrong or why – because such a sequence of events was not foreseen. After the first crash, pilots were blamed. After the second crash in March 2019, various countries grounded the plane.  Modifications now being made are likely to save hundreds of lives in future. In the end, despite an initial assumption of pilot error, precise faults in complex systems were identified as the probable cause of both crashes.
  • Nobody thought it possible that a computer-controlled engine on a modern jet airliner, a Boeing 767, could go into reverse thrust at nearly 30,000 feet. Being a theoretical impossibility, pilots were not trained to try and mitigate the consequences. Compulsory improvements after the crash have, potentially, saved many lives by avoiding similar accidents. Probability theory would not have explained what went wrong or why. Initially pilots were blamed but eventually it was found that they could not have recovered from such an event at that altitude.
  • The sequence of events that led to the crash into the side of a mountain of an A320, one of the world’s safest and most reliable aircraft, had not been anticipated. The crash’s lead investigator described the accident as a “random” event. Nobody who designed the computer-controlled plane had anticipated that a confusing screen display, an easily-made input mistake, a little-known autopilot feature that compounded the problems and the absence of a computer-based ground proximity warning system, could combine with poor pilot training to cause a disaster. The crash of Air Inter Flight 148 near Strasbourg airport in France led to industry-wide changes, including a redesigned screen display, more pilot training and more widespread use of onboard warning systems. It was thought the pilots had entered “3.3” into the autopilot believing this to be the angle of descent on their approach to the airport. But the same autopilot control was used to set the rate of descent. The autopilot, being in the “wrong” mode, took the plane on a disastrous 3,300 feet-per-minute descent instead of a more relaxed 3.3 angle of descent. The crash was caused by an unanticipated sequence of events. “It a fascinating lesson about the random dimension of accidents,” said the French lead investigator Jean Paries. “Half a second before or half a second later and we wouldn’t have had the accident.” Probability theory would not have helped identify the contributory factors or the “random” sequence of events.
  • Nobody thought that rain and hail could cause both engines on a 737 to flame out. The engines were certified to cope with water. But flame out they did, on a flight from Belize to New Orleans in 1988. Amazingly, the pilots glided the unpowered airliner onto a narrow grass levee next to a canal and everyone survived. If the plane had crashed and little wreckage recovered and everyone on board had died, the pilots might have been blamed because of an absence of evidence of technical malfunction, as the engines showed signs only of mild hail damage.
  • It was always considered possible, even likely, that birds could be ingested into a computer-controlled jet engine. But it was not considered likely that birds could ingested into the core of the engine. It was even less likely that birds could be ingested into the engine’s core and stop it from working. The idea of birds being ingested into the core of two engines and greatly reducing thrust in both of them at the same time was not even tested for, or pilots trained to cope, because it was thought impossible. But nobody had considered that migrating flocks of Canada geese would be in the vicinity of New York’s LaGuardia airport. The birds weigh up to 10 pounds. The plane’s engines were certified to cope with birds weighing up to four pounds. With a loss of power in both engines, the Airbus A320 glided safely onto the Hudson river, piloted by the gifted and now-famous pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Probability theory would have been of no use in identifying what went wrong or why.
  • It was thought impossible that a modern airliner could lose all three of its separate hydraulic systems on one flight but that is exactly what happened on United Airlines Flight 232. The tail engine on a DC-10 had an uncontained fan disk failure in flight, which damaged all three hydraulic systems and rendered the flight controls inoperable. Nobody had considered that a rupture could occur just below the tail engine where all three hydraulic systems were in close proximity. But a number 2 engine explosion hurled fragments that ruptured all three lines, resulting in total loss of control to the elevators, ailerons, spoilers, horizontal stabilizer, rudder, flaps and slats. Probability theory could not have identified the cause.
  • At first, pilots were blamed for a series of 737 crashes where a suspected component was tested by investigators but it performed perfectly every time. After more than five years of investigations,  hundreds of fatalities and thousands of tests on the component, it was discovered that in a very rare set of specific circumstances, the component could not only jam but jam in a way that left the rudder in an extreme position on the opposite side to that expected. This was the equivalent of a car driver turning the steering wheel left and it jams hard over to the right. The seemingly impossible had happened. No probability theory would have helped identify the fault.
  • Nobody had thought it possible that a Chinook helicopter tethered to the ground at Wilmington, Delaware, USA, during tests could be destroyed by an uncontrollably surging computer-controlled engine. It happened because an electrical lead had been unplugged to simulate an electrical failure. The engine software had not been programmed to cope with such an eventuality. It kept pumping fuel into the engine because the software misinterpreted the unplugged lead as evidence the engine was delivering insufficient power.
  • Nobody had considered the possibility of wasps contributing to the deaths of all 189 people on a 757 bound for Germany. The wasps were thought to have nested in a pitot tube which fed incorrect data to the cockpit instruments. As a result, pilots were told simultaneously that the plane was flying too fast (which can cause break-up of the airframe) and too slowly (which can cause a stall and send the plane plummeting to the ground). As such an eventuality was not considered possible, pilots were not trained to cope with the effects of a blocked pitot tube or with conflicting warnings that they were flying too fast and too slowly at the same time. Probability theory would not have helped identify the cause.

So what? – Horizon is not an aircraft system

There are more similar incidents in which the seemingly impossible happened.

All of the aircraft had duplicate or triplicate critical components, methods of error detection and correction, contingency measures, built-in redundancy – and a great deal more in terms of rigorous real-world user testing, independent analyses and firm change control.

And still the aircraft or its complex systems failed. Probability theory and statistics would have solved none of the incidents.

Investigators identified a probable cause after each incident by having a full understanding of the systems and equipment involved, full disclosure of information, in most cases the print-outs from black boxes and dogged independent investigations that sometimes involved years of tests of  single components on multi-million dollar test rigs.

There has been no requirement to determine the exact cause of every major incident involving Horizon.

How, then, can anyone know for certain that Horizon was performing as expected when sub-postmasters were blamed for losses of tens of thousands of pounds  – losses that turned out to be ruinous for them and their families, and on rare occasions led to suicide?

Can probability theory explain a single one of the Post Office’s major incidents?

The Post Office will continue to argue its Horizon system is robust. But the complex systems on more than a dozen planes that crashed, causing the loss of hundreds of lives, were also robust.

The planes crashed not because a one-in-a-million risk materialised but because of a series of events that designers had not considered possible. For this reason, there were no procedures for coping with the events.

We know about the random events and seemingly impossible causes of air crashes because they are among the most thoroughly investigated of all failures of complex systems. Lessons are required to be learnt.

But how does all this leave us on the question on whether Horizon did or did not cause the losses in question?

Perhaps the truth is best summed up in Nick Wallis’ comment that the  expert  answer to whether Horizon is responsible for causing discrepancies in branch accounts seems to be “possibly” or “possibly not”.

But does “possibly” or “possibly not” provide strong enough grounds for Post Office actions that have ruined hundreds of lives?

More to the point, we have with the Horizon system, as with air crashes, evidence of major incidents. Every accusation against a sub-postmaster who denies any knowledge of losses is a major incident. On this basis, there is evidence of hundreds of major Post Office incidents.

But working back from each major incident, there is no full understanding by experts of how exactly the systems worked.

As the Post Office’s expert put it, there are “levels of depth and complexity in the way Horizon actually works which the experts have not been able to plumb …”

There are no print-outs from accident black boxes. There are not single investigations that have taken years to establish the full truth or multi-million pound test rigs on which to assess all the technology in question.

In short, there are many more questions than answers. Is this a just basis for the Post Office’s 100% certainty that it was right to blame sub-postmasters for losses shown on Horizon?

With uncertainty over the exact cause(s) of each incident, was it just and right to require sub-postmasters to make good losses shown on Horizon?

Arguably, that is the same or similar as holding pilots, whether dead or alive, responsible for plane crashes that could have been caused by a random sequence of events that were thought impossible.

Would you feel safer in a plane or running a village post office?

Nick Wallis’ postofficetrial blog

Karl Flinders has reported extensively on Horizon and the trials for Computer Weekly.

Tim McCormack’s “Problems with POL [Post Office Ltd]” blog.

Stephen Mason, barrister and associate research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies in London, has written an excellent article (related to the Horizon dispute): the use of the word robust to describe software code

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Will Post Office need state bail-out if it loses Horizon IT trial?

By Tony Collins

The Government is now aware, if it wasn’t before, that Horizon IT trials could end up costing the publicly-owned Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds.

Is continuing the case a gamble with public money?

Tom Cooper, the Government’s shareholder on Post Office board

Journalist Nick Wallis has questioned a minister and a senior official on the possible cost implications if the Post Office loses a High Court case over the Horizon IT system.

His questions to the Post Office minister Kelly Tolhurst and civil servant Tom Cooper, who is the government’s representative on the Post Office board, could help to ensure that the Government is aware that the Horizon IT trial may end up costing the Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds if it loses.

This awareness could raise questions among ministers and civil servants about whether the Post Office will face financial problems or even insolvency if it loses the Horizon trials.

The litigation began in 2017 and the Post Office has lost all of the several rulings so far. Judgements have been strongly critical of the Post Office, its approach to the litigation and its behaviour.

Hundreds of millions of pounds?

Tom Cooper joined the Post Office’s board as non-executive director last year. On the board he represents, on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy,  the Government’s 100% shareholding in the Post Office.

He is a director of UK Government Investments, which is wholly-owned by HM Treasury and represents government interests on the boards of arm’s length bodies including the Post Office.

Wallis asked Cooper about the government’s strategy if the claimants win the case. Claimants are about 550 former sub-postmasters who are suing the Post Office – potentially for hundreds of millions of pounds – because they say they were unjustly forced to make good non-genuine losses shown on the Horizon system.

The Post Office is strongly defending the case, arguing that Horizon is robust and that the sub-postmasters were to blame for actual losses.

In his reply to Wallis, Cooper explained that claimants have not declared the size of the damages they seek. Wallis cited Freeths solicitors, which represents the former sub-postmasters, as saying the litigation could cost the Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds.

Cooper replied that no sums of that nature had been mentioned in court. At this point, one of Cooper’s colleagues politely terminated the interview.

Bail-out?

Wallis also questioned Post Office minister Kelly Tolhurst on the possible cost implications if the Post Office loses the case. She politely declined to answer directly saying, “I can’t really go into the litigation stuff… I’m not being evasive. I can’t speak to you about it.”

Wallis asked whether, if the Post Office loses, the government could end up bailing out the Post Office. Tolhurst said she wouldn’t “get into theoretical-based outcomes of the litigation.”

But Tolhurst disclosed that there were conversations going on between the Post Office, civil servants and the ministry [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy which is the Post Office’s parent ministry].

HM Treasury’s UK Government Investments is responsible for ensuring the Post Office has enough investment and subsidy funding to ensue it is commercially sustainable in the longer term, whilst meeting its social obligations, particularly around minimum network coverages requirements.

UK Government Investments also advises ministers on Post Office commercial and policy issues.

Comment

Wallis’s interviews with Cooper and Tolhurst are important developments: they mean that officials and ministers cannot credibly deny in future that, if they end up bailing out the Post Office, it has come as a shock.

In Wallis’ questions, he made it clear that solicitors Freeths had said the litigation could end up costing the Post Office hundreds of millions of pounds.

Cooper tacitly acknowledged in his reply that he had heard what Wallis said. Indeed, Cooper’s impressive financial background indicates that he will have a good understanding of the possible cost implications for the Post Office if it loses the case.

Cooper was global co-chairman of mergers and acquisitions at Deutsche Bank. He was at UBS Investment Bank for 21 years where his various roles included head of European merger and acquisitions.

Of course, ministers and officials could argue internally – at the moment – that taxpayers are not funding the litigation.

Indeed, Whitehall officials have obtained a written assurance from the Post Office that it will fund the Horizon litigation from its own money, not public money that is allocated to modernisation and new investment in the Post Office’s network.

But it’s a different story if the Post Office runs into financial trouble.

The Government would have no choice but to use public money for a bail out. It could not allow the Post Office to go bust.

And thanks to Wallis’ questions yesterday,  ministers could not argue they were unaware of the full possible cost implications of losing the case.

Indeed, it is incumbent on civil servants now to make sure ministers are aware of what could happen if the Post Office loses the case and cannot afford to pay damages and costs from its own money.

When fully aware of the risks – the gamble with public money – will ministers and officials allow the Post Office to continue spending large sums on the High Court case – or will they urge it to settle now before many more millions of pounds are spent on legal costs?

The judge in the trials, Mr Justice Fraser, has said the case will continue for “years”. Ministers and officials could therefore take the attitude that they may be long gone by the end of the trials and therefore costs are a matter for their successors.

Or they could do the right thing and urge the Post Office to limit its potential liabilities by settling now.

Wallis has a full account of his conversations with Cooper and Tolhurst on his postofficetrial blog.

Post Office Ltd and the money tree – Tim McCormack’s blog

Post Office ordered to pay £5m towards claimants’ costs – part of Computer Weekly’s coverage of Horizon trials

How is Post Office paying for increasing costs of Horizon IT litigation – MP asks questions

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.

Comment:

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.

Thank you to sub-postmaster “Mrs Goggins”  and former sub-postmaster Jo Hamilton whose tweets alerted me to Kevan Jones’ questions.

Computer Weekly’s coverage

Journalist Nick Wallis’ coverage

Former sub-postmaster and campaigner Tim McCormack’s blog

 

Will more campaigners die as they await justice in extended Post Office IT dispute?

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?

Traumatised

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.”

Comment

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.

Nick Wallis’ Post Office trial coverage

Post Office lacked humanity in treatment of sub-postmasters, says peer – Computer Weekly’s coverage of the Post Office’s trial

Blog of campaigning former sub-postmaster Tim McCormack

Could MPs hold Post Office directors to account for Horizon IT trial costs – after they have left?

By Tony Collins

The Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office have been alerted to the costs of the High Court trials over the Post Office Horizon IT system.

Parliamentary committees have the power to hold people to account after they have left an organisation.

Could this happen in the case of the publicly-owned Post Office whose directors have decided to spend, potentially, tens of millions of pounds on an avoidable High Court litigation?

Nearly 600 sub-postmasters are suing the Post Office because they say their lives were ruined when the Post Office required them to make good non-existent shortfalls shown on an imperfect Horizon system. The Post Office says Horizon has always been robust and that they were entitled to hold the sub-postmasters liable for losses shown on Horizon.

The Post Office appears resolved not to settle the case despite campaigns for justice in Parliament and by the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance. One unanswered question is whether the Post Office board is hardening its position in the face of the campaigns.

Campaign4Change emailed the Public Accounts Committee about costs of the litigation. As a result, the National Audit Office, which works closely with the accounts committee, contacted UK Government Investments, which represents the Government’s interest as sole shareholder of Post Office Limited.

The Committee told us,

“The NAO has now completed its enquiries and reviewed supporting evidence.

“Post Office Limited is a government owned company which is primarily funded through income from it is operations and is not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

“The NAO has therefore limited its enquiries to understanding the role of UKGI [UK Government Investments] given it has no remit to audit the actions of Post Office Limited.

“The NAO discussed the case with UKGI to understand the governance in place between Post Office Limited and UKGI and to confirm there was appropriate oversight of Post Office Limited’s decision to defend the litigation.”

Regarding the accountability of individual Post Office Limited’s directors, the National Audit Office said,  “Since Post Office Limited’s inception in 2012, UKGI has had a representative on the Board as a Non-Executive Director. The same government representative is also a member of the subcommittee of the Board which specifically considers this issue. These committees are involved in decision making around the litigation case and the representative regularly reports to ministers on these matters.

“From the work performed by the NAO, they have concluded that the involvement of UKGI in decision making appears appropriate and the level of oversight proportionate.”

The Committee said the National Audit Office has not  directly considered the actions taken by the Post Office Board but the case is being kept under review.

Following the NAO’s investigation, the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is responsible for the Post Office, sought an assurance from the Post Office’s CEO Paula Vennells that departmental funds meant for transformation and business investment will not be used on the Horizon litigation.

Also the BEIS department now requires regular written assurances that BEIS funding will be used for the intended purposes only.

Summons?

When a Parliamentary committee decides to summon a witness formally, the witness is summoned to attend the committee by an order signed by the chairman.

Failure to attend a committee when formally summoned is a contempt and if a witness fails to appear, when summoned in this manner, his or her conduct is reported to the House of Commons which can deal with the matter as an act of disobedience.

MPs and peers are expected to look more closely at the actions of the Post Office in the light of its decision to try and remove Sir Peter Fraser, the judge in the Horizon IT case. The Post Office’s application to remove the judge could greatly increase costs of the case which are already expected to run into tens of millions of pounds.

Following the Post Office’s application for the judge’s removal, the second of four High Court trials has been suspended and will not resume until 3 April.

Journalist Nick Wallis reports that the application for the judge’s removal coincided with evidence being given, in part, by the chief architect for the Horizon system at Fujitsu. He was being questioned on the system and possible errors.

Thank you to campaigner Tim McCormack whose Freedom of Information requests unearthed the letter dated January 2019 to the Post Office from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that seeks assurances on funding for the Horizon IT litigation.

Postofficetrial– Nick Wallis

Post Office Horizon IT trial suspended after Post Office accuses judge of bias – Computer Weekly

The power to summon witnesses

The process for formally summoning a witness is outlined in a House of Commons paper: 

“When a committee decides to summon a witness formally, the witness is summoned to attend the committee by an order signed by the chairman. Failure to attend a committee when formally summoned is a contempt and if a witness fails to appear, when summoned in this manner, his conduct is reported to the House… If he still neglects to appear, he will be dealt with as in other cases of disobedience.

“It is the House which will ultimately decide how a case of disobedience should be dealt with.”

More public sector IT-related failures for which nobody will be accountable – a solution?

The Times front page – 23 January 2019

By Tony Collins

Criminal trials were delayed, jurors unable to enrol and witness statements inaccessible.

Quoting a tweet by the authoritative @BarristerSecret, the BBC said the “entire digital infrastructure” of courts was “broken for days”.

@BarristerSecret added,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In the Spectator, Matthew Scott, a criminal barrister at Pump Court Chambers, said,

“Nobody seems to know exactly what has gone wrong or, if they do, they do not like to say.”

His Spectator blog was headlined,

The Spectator – 24 Jan 2019

 

 

“The most irritating fault has been for a few days the near total seizure (or ‘major service degradation’ to use the official non-explanation) of the secure email system (‘CJSM’) which for several years now has been the only authorised means of written communication between the Crown Prosecution Service and defence lawyers, probation, prisons, police and others.”

The Law Society Gazette said,

Law Society Gazette – 22 Jan 2019

 

 

 

The Law Society Gazette gave examples of how the problems had caused disruption and angst in the criminal justice system. It said,

“Major disruption that affected multiple Ministry of Justice IT systems last week continues to cause chaos.

“Lawyers on the front line have told the Gazette that trials have been delayed, jurors have been unable to enrol and practitioners have been prevented from confirming attendance that will enable them to get paid.

“Last week the ministry’s digital and technology team said most systems were improving. However, the Gazette has spoken to practitioners whose experiences suggest otherwise.”

A criminal barrister who spent the day in Leicester Crown Court said  none of the court’s computer systems was operational, jurors could not be enrolled, and no advocates could sign into the Ministry of Justice’s XHIBIT system, an online service that logs lawyers’ attendance so they can get paid.

A lawyer at Lincoln Crown Court said the XHIBIT system was down again. The Crown Court Digital Case System, on which all cases are accessed, was also down.

A criminal defence solicitor arrived at Highbury Magistrates’ Court in London at 9.15am, where there were several clients in the cells. But jailers did not know which courts the cases would be heard in and  because there was no wi-fi in the building magistrates had no access to any papers on their ipads before the hearings.

“The Gazette was told that several people attended Scarborough Magistrates’ Court last week to make statutory declarations in respect of driving matters. ‘Most of these people had come suited and booted, with all the anxiety that marks ordinary members of the public out as different from the frequent flyers who regularly come before the courts.

“These poor souls were left hanging around all morning, until 1pm, when they were advised that the systems were still not back up. Two of them agreed to come back on an adjourned date, 14 days later, but one of them explained that he couldn’t take further time off work. He was asked to come back in the afternoon, in the vain hope that the case management system might be back online.”

Former government chief technology officer Andy Beale quoted The Times in a tweet,

 

 

 

In another tweet, Beale said,

 

 

 

The Guardian reported yesterday (28 January 2019) that the Ministry of Justice knew its court computer systems were “obsolete” and “out of support” long before the network went into meltdown, internal documents have revealed.

The MoJ document, entitled Digital & Technology, said, “Historical under-investment in ageing IT systems has built our technical debt to unacceptable levels and we are carrying significant risk that will result in a large-scale data breach if the vulnerabilities are exploited.”

It added, “We have a Technology 2022 strategy, but it is not funded to help us address the long-term issues with current systems and allow us to make best use of new technologies to improve service delivery.”

It referred to a database used by 16 employment tribunal administrative offices in which the “scale of outage” accounted for 33% of incidents over the previous six months. Users were unable to access systems for a “significant number of hours”.

The report cited problems such as “risk of database corrupted leading to data loss; unable to restore service in a timely manner”, and added: “Judges say they will put tribunal activity on hold because of the poor running of the application.”

Government response

In the Commons, the government’s justice minister Lucy Frazer, responding to an urgent Labour request for a statement on the IT problems, was relaxed in her comments. She said the disruption was “intermittent” and the problems were merely “frustrating”. She added,

“The issue that has arisen relates mainly to email systems. There has been minimal disruption, I am told, to the courts system as a whole.”

She said there had been an “infrastructure failure in our supplier’s data centre”.

“The Prison Service has not been affected and—to correct inaccurate reporting—criminals have not gone free as a result of the problem. We have been working closely with our suppliers, Atos and Microsoft, to get our systems working again, and yesterday we had restored services to 180 court sites, including the largest ones.

“Today (23 January 2019), 90% of staff have working computer systems. Work continues to restore services and we expect the remainder of the court sites to be fully operational by the time they open tomorrow morning. We are very disappointed that our suppliers have not yet been able to resolve the network problems in full.

“This afternoon, the permanent secretary, Sir Richard Heaton, will meet the chief executive of Atos and write personally to all members of the judiciary. I am very grateful to all our staff who have been working tirelessly and around the clock, alongside our suppliers, to resolve the issues.”

Labour’s Yasmin Qureshi asked if Microsoft and Atos have paid any penalties to which Frazer gave a vague, non-committal reply,

“… the permanent secretary is meeting the supplier’s chief executive this afternoon and of course we will look carefully at the contracts, which include penalty clauses.”

Frazer later said the problem related to a “server” which raised questions about how the failure of a single server, or servers, could cause widespread chaos in the courts.

Labour’s Steve McCabe said the server problem was not a  single or unusual event.

“… her Department has been receiving reports of failures in the criminal justice secure email service for at least six months now”.

Police systems

The BBC reported last week that problems with a police IT system were causing some criminals to escape justice.

Nine forces in England and Wales use Athena from Northgate Public Services. They are Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia. The system is designed to help speed up the detection of crimes.

But officers told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme that it crashes regularly and is overly complicated, meaning some cases are not built in time or dropped.

Developers Northgate Public Services apologised for problems “in small areas”, which it said it was fixing.

A joint response from nine police forces said Athena – which has cost £35m over the past 10 years – had been “resilient and stable, although no system is perfect”.

The system was introduced following a government directive for forces to share intelligence after the Soham murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, in 2002.

Officers said the intelligence-sharing function works well but problems arise when they use the system to build cases for the Crown Prosecution Service.

The delays it causes means officers can struggle to get the information together in time to charge suspects or the cases are not up to a high-enough standard and are dropped.

Serving officers at Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex told the programme the process could now take up to twice as long.

The BBC did not name any officers who revealed details of the problems because they could face disciplinary action for speaking out. Their comments included:

  • “The first two weeks it (the system) was brought in were the worst two weeks of my entire career. It’s overly bureaucratic. It doesn’t understand the police investigative process at all. From day one, it malfunctioned. Four years on, it is still malfunctioning”
  • “It often requires information that is totally irrelevant and if you miss just one data entry point (like whether a solicitor is male or female), I have to reject the whole case and send it back to the officer”
  • “Even for a simple shoplift, I probably have to press about 50 buttons, with a 30-second minimum loading time between each task”
  • “There have been incidents where charges have been dropped because of the inadequacies of the system. There have been cases of assaults, albeit fairly minor assaults, but these are still people who should be facing criminal charges”
  • “It slows the whole criminal justice system down. At the moment, it is not fit for purpose. This is the most challenging time I have come across. We’re at breaking point already. This has pushed some officers over the edge”
  • “When you’ve got detainees in a custody block who’ve got various illnesses and ailments, medical conditions that are all recorded on there and they need medication at certain times – it became very dangerous because we were unable to access the records”

The nine forces – which also include those in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Norfolk, Suffolk, Warwickshire and West Mercia – said in a joint statement that they had been working with the supplier to identify and correct issues as they arose.

“Over the 12 months up to November 2018, there have only been 72 hours of total downtime and there are detailed plans in place of how to manage business when this occurs.”

Northgate Public Services, which created Athena, said 40,000 officers accessed the system and benefited from improved criminal intelligence.

It said it was working to make improvements to the “complex system”.

“We recognise there are a small number of areas of the solution where improvements can be made and we apologise for any difficulties this has caused.

“We are working hard with the customer and other parties to make these improvements as a priority.”

Comment:

As @BarristerSecret said,

“No accountability, no lessons learned.”

In central and local government, accountability means suppliers sometimes have to pay small penalties. Outsourcing supplier Capita last year paid Barnet Council about £4.2m in compensation for poor performance.

It was a fraction of the hundreds of millions Capita has received from Barnet Council.

Sometimes the opposite happens and it is the supplier that wins money from the government after a failure.

The Home Office sacked Raytheon over problems on an e-borders IT systems and ended up paying Raytheon £224m in compensation.

The Department of Heath ended up paying Fujitsu hundreds of millions of pounds after the supplier’s contract to deliver systems under the National Programme for IT [NPfIT] was ended.

A major failure in one area of the public sector will not  stop or deter officials from awarding the same supplier a major contract in the same or another part of the public sector.

Were a major failure or legal dispute to preclude a supplier from bidding for further UK public sector work, most if not all major suppliers would today have little UK government business.

A solution?

There is an effective way to encourage IT suppliers and the public sector to avoid public service failures. But the senior civil service isn’t interested.

That solution would be to publish – after every major public services failure – a full, independent third-party report into what went wrong and why.

Some senior officials seem unruffled by public criticism or even contempt after a services failure. But particularly in some of the major departments, there is a high-level fear of the full truth emerging after an administrative disaster.  Departments would do almost anything to avoid IT-related failures if reports on the causes were routinely published.

But unless there is a Parliamentary or public clamour for such internal analyses to be published, they will remain hidden or uncommissioned.

When the National Audit Office publishes a report on a departmental failure, the report has usually been agreed and signed off by the department; and it is usually a one-off report.

When public services descend into chaos, as happened in the court service last week, immense pressure falls on the IT teams to restore normal services urgently. But without the routine publication of reports on major IT-related public service failures, where is the motivation for senior officials to avoid chaos in the first place?

House of Commons debate on the courts’ IT failures

Thank you to Celina Bledowska for her tweet alerting me to the criminal justice IT problems.

Businessman whose wife died from overdose has joined group legal action against the Post Office

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

FT reports on a death following Horizon system shortfall

Uupublished plan to throw another £13bn at the NHS’s IT problems?

By Tony Collins

The Health Service Journal yesterday revealed details of NHS IT investment plans that have been costed at about £12.9bn over the next five years.

The HSJ’s award-winning technology correspondent Ben Heather  says the sums currently involved – which could reduce as proposals are “reined in” – are on a par with the notorious National Programme for IT in the NHS.

He says that officials working on the plan have produced an estimate of between £10.9bn and £12.9bn for the cost of supporting proposals across 15 long-term plan “workstreams” ranging from creating personalised care to improving cancer survival.

The figures form part of the work of the digital and technology workstream for the long term plan, which is being developed by NHS England and NHS Improvement.

“The sum would be on par with the National Programme for IT, the most expensive push to improve IT systems in NHS history and an infamously costly and troubled project. It is likely to reduce substantially, however, as ambitions for the plan are negotiated and reined in over coming weeks.”

The plan is due to be published in late November or early December. The health secretary is known to be a keen advocate of new IT-related investments.

It is likely that a sizeable portion of the new £20bn planned for the NHS – which will be financed partly by tax increases that are due to be announced in the budget later this month – will go on NHS technology.

But the Health Service Journal suggests the investments will be controlled centrally, which may be a bad sign given that one of the major flaws in the failed £13bn NPfIT was that money was controlled centrally rather than by local groups of doctors and nurses.

Comment

On the face of it the current investment proposals bear no resemblance to the NHS IT programme NPfIT which was “dismantled” in 2011.

The NPfIT comprised a handful of specific major projects that were to be implemented nationally under the umbrella of “ruthless standardisation”.

The current proposals look very different. The investments fall into vague categories such as digitalising secondary care, improvements to IT infrastructure, data gathering and analytics.

The proposals have all the appearance of a different way the NHS has found to waste vast sums of public money.

It has never been acknowledged by the Treasury, NHS England or the Department of Health that the NPfIT wasted billions on spending that was invisible to the public, such as numerous consultants, years of globe-trotting by officials, first-class hotels across the world, sponsored conferences and unreported funds for marketing items that included DVDs and board games designed especially to promote the IT programme.

For officials, there’s nothing more exciting than going to work on a £13bn technology programme where money flows more freely than water. It’s no wonder officialdom is lobbying for the money.

No doubt it will be easy for officials to obtain the new billions. At any time in the recent history of the NHS it would have been easy on paper to justify £13bn for new NHS technology. Much of the £13bn could be justified simply enough by submitting plans to HM Treasury to modernise what already exists.

It was easy to justify the NPfIT. Tony Blair approved it at a Downing Street meeting that lasted 40 minutes. Computer Weekly obtained minutes of the Downing Street meeting after various FOI appeals.

But the NHS needs £13bn to be spent wisely on technology. The last thing the NHS needs is for Whitehall officials to be involved. History shows that Whitehall has the reverse Midas touch when it comes to major NHS IT investments. It is local groups of doctors and nurses who know how to spend the money wisely.

If either NHS England or the Department of Health and Social Care is involved in the new proposals for NHS IT investments – and they both are – it’s almost certain the new plans will end up as costly failures.

How would the public feel if they realised that a sizeable portion of their increased taxes for the NHS is almost certainly destined for the dustbin marked “mismanaged Whitehall IT schemes”.

Revealed: Officials’ £13bn funding ask to modernise NHS IT

Another NPfIT scandal in the making?

A system-wide problem with Horizon connectivity?

By Tony Collins

The Post Office has said in the past that its controversial Horizon system has not had system-wide problems.

This month, however, the system has had two serious widespread outages. On 10 May 2018, Computer Weekly reported that about 2,000 Post Office branches were unable to connect to the organisation’s computer system for a few hours on 9 May because of a connectivity issue.

A second problem last week affected “the whole network” according to a spokesperson at the National Federation of SubPostmasters.

“In the past two weeks we’ve had two instances, just under a quarter of the network was affected earlier in the month, and yesterday the whole network was down for a couple of hours,”

The spokesperson told BBC News that its members have suffered financially because of the problems.

“Sub-postmasters only get paid if they are serving customers so any downtime means they are out of pocket, and people are unable to send their mail.

“The Post Office uses a nationwide computer system to make sure all items are tracked correctly before being sent. If this suddenly stops working then it means potential delays to your parcel across all depots in the UK.”

Those reading Post Office statements on its Horizon system over the years could have gained the impression that the system was able to cope with every eventuality. These are some of the Post Office’s comments on the Horizon system:

“… Post Office maintains that Horizon is capable of handling power and telecommunications problems.”

“Horizon is operated by thousands of Subpostmasters, the majority of whom have not had any issue with the system or its effectiveness.”

“Post Office maintains that the fact that almost 500,000 users have used Horizon since its inception and only 150 have raised a complaint to the Scheme shows that it is fit for purpose.”

“Post Office considers it fair to assume that if a loss has occurred then it has been caused in the branch and is something for which, in most circumstances, a Subpostmaster is liable to make good.”

“… there is no evidence of systemic problems with branch accounting on Horizon. All existing evidence overwhelmingly supports this position.

“The very small number of sub-postmasters who have experienced issues with the Horizon system are a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of people who have been successfully using the system across the network of 11,500 branches on a daily basis since 1995.”

“It is also important to recognise, however, that to date this system has handled more than 45 billion transactions and that there have been issues with only a tiny, tiny number of them.”

“Our computer system has been used by around 500,000 people in our network over more than a decade, processing billions of transactions during that time for our customers.”

“We have now spent three years investigating and addressing various complaints by a small number of former postmasters. We have done everything and more than we committed to do at the outset. We set up an independent enquiry, which found no systemic flaws in the system …”

Last week, the Post Office said in a statement: “We’re really sorry for any inconvenience that the connectivity issues at some of our branches caused yesterday. The issue was resolved within a few hours, and our branches are now back to business as usual.”

 Legal action

 Subpostmasters are taking a group legal action against the Post Office through Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. The subpostmasters and mistresses blame the Horizon system for financial losses that the Post Office has sought to recover from the individual Post Office branch owners.

Some branch owners lost their livelihoods and had their lives ruined. At least one was said to have committed suicide. Some were jailed, made bankrupt or died while awaiting justice.

The Post Office has claimed the number of complainants is “tiny”, but the actual number of subpostmaster-claimants is now 561.

A High Court hearing is planned for November 2018. It will hear from 12 potential “lead cases”, six of which were selected by Post Office Limited and six by Freeths solicitors who represent the claimants.

These individual cases will be decided ahead of the rest of the Group of 561 and will be used to demonstrate some of the key issues, in particular the fairness of the contract between the claimants and the Post Office.

Computer Weekly reported last month that a forensic examination of the Horizon system by specialists commissioned by the Criminal Courts Review Commission has raised further questions.

“The forensic accounting company hired by the Criminal Courts Review Commission to look more closely at the controversial IT system blamed by sub-postmasters for their wrongful prosecutions has completed its initial findings, and from this has decided to make further enquiries,” said Computer Weekly.

Comment

No computer system is infallible,. The Horizon system is decades-old and has had innumerable patches, additions and enhancements.

After two outages this month, one of which is said to have been network-wide, will the Post Office be able to continue with its claim that the system has not had any system-wide problems?

Indeed how credible in general is the Post Office’s case against 541 subpostmasters? At long last the answer to that question no longer rests with the Post Office. A decision on whether injustices that date back years can be corrected will rest with a High Court judge.

It’s a matter the Post Office ought to have settled long ago. Instead it has relied on the public purse to fund the perpetuation of a series of injustices.

Connectivity issue hits thousands of Post Office branches – Computer Weekly May 2018

Post Office hit by computer problems – BBC News May 2018

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

 

Judge in Post Office Horizon case calls for a “change of attitude”

By Tony Collins

The Law Society Gazette reports that the High Court judge in the Post Office Horizon case has called for a “change of attitude”.

At a case management conference, the judge Sir Peter Fraser listed some of the problems already reported during the group litigation:

  • Failure to lodge required documents with the court
  • Refusing to disclose obviously relevant documents
  • Threatening ‘pointless’ interlocutory skirmishes.
  • Failure to respond to directions for two months
  • Failure to even consider e-disclosure questionnaires

The case involves a class action – called a Group Litigation Order – against the Post Office brought by more than 500 mostly sub-postmasters.

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance seeks damages related to the introduction of the Horizon computer system about  17 years ago, which is alleged to have caused financial distress and in some cases bankruptcy.

According to the Law Society Gazette, the judge said the behaviour of legal advisers in the case “simply does not begin to qualify as either cost-effective, efficient, or being in accordance with the over-riding objective”. He added,

“A fundamental change of attitude by the legal advisers involved in this group litigation is required. A failure to heed this warning will result in draconian costs orders.”

The court has heard of problems trying to establish a timetable for the litigation. The claimants sought a substantive hearing for October 2018, while the Post Office argued the case could be managed for another entire year without any substantive hearing being fixed. Under this proposal, the hearing would not happen until at least 2019.

Fraser noted that to describe this approach as ‘leisurely, dilatory and unacceptable in the modern judicial system would be a considerable understatement’.

The day after a trial was ordered for November 2018, the Post Office asked for a change because its leading counsel already had a commitment at the Companies Court.

The judge suggested it was a ‘clear case of the tail wagging the dog’ if clerks were allowed to dictate hearing date. He said there was reasonable notice to arrange for a replacement counsel.

Fraser added: ‘Fixing hearings in this group litigation around the diaries of busy counsel, rather than their fixing their diaries around this case, is in my judgment fundamentally the wrong approach.’

Comment:

It appears that the judge did not single out the claimants or the Post Office as the main target for his irritation. He was impartial. But his no-nonsense approach might have surprised some at the Post Office.

The Post Office is familiar with control. When the Horizon system has shown a shortfall in the accounts of a local branch, the Post Office has required the sub-postmasters to pay whatever amount is shown, in order to return the balance to zero.

Even when paying the shown amount has led to bankruptcy and destruction of the family life of the sub-postmaster, the Post Office has pursued the case.

It has had control.

It supplied the contract that sub-postmasters signed; it supplied the Horizon branch accounting system; it required payment of what the system showed as a deficit; it investigated complaints by sub-postmasters that the shown deficits might have been incorrect;  it was able to decide what information to release or withhold – the “known errors” Horizon log being one piece of information not disclosed – and it was the prosecuting authority.

It has also been free to rebut public criticisms, as when BBC’s Panorama and forensic accountants Second Sight focused on the concerns of sub-postmasters.

Now it’s a High Court judge who is questioning, among other things, a failure to lodge required documents with the court and refusing a to disclose obviously relevant documents.

The judge’s comments are refreshing. Since 2009, when Computer Weekly first reported on the concerns of sub-postmasters, control has been one-sided.

Now at last it is on an even keel.

We hope the Post Office will reappraise whether it should be using public funds at all to fight the case.

If the case does drag on for years – postponing a judicial decision – who will benefit? Certainly not the sub-postmasters.

Law Society Gazette article