Category Archives: IT-related disputes

Post Office IT scandal makes legal history – and now prosecutors will come under scrutiny

By Tony Collins

The Post Office Horizon IT scandal became part of legal history yesterday when the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred an unprecedented 39 potentially unsafe criminal convictions to the Court of Appeal.

The grounds for referral were “abuse of process” – a term that suggests the  integrity of the criminal justice system might have been compromised.

Helen Pitcher, chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, said in a statement yesterday: “This [39 applicants] is by some distance the largest number of cases we will ever have referred for appeal at one time.”

The 39 convictions were for theft, fraud and false accounting. They are being referred on the basis of an argument that “each prosecution amounted to an abuse of process”.

The Commission did not explain what it meant by “abuse of process” but the Crown Prosecution Service gives general guidance on what the term means.

In exceptional circumstances, an “abuse o process” is cited by courts when they intervene to stop a prosecution because of “bad faith, unlawfulness or executive misconduct”.

The term “abuse of process” has been defined as “something so unfair and wrong that the court should not allow a prosecutor to proceed with what is in all other respect a regular proceeding”.

It can also refer to a past prosecution that was manifestly unfair for reasons that have only since become apparent.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission is a statutory body set up to review suspected miscarriages of justice. Its commissioners have been looking at the safety of convictions that were based on evidence from the Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system.

The commissioners have taken into account judgements in civil court trials related to the Horizon system. The judge managing the trials,  Mr Justice Fraser, found that the Post Office tried to mislead him about the Horizon system. Flaws in Horizon were kept hidden while the Post Office wrongly pursued sub-postmasters for money they did not owe.

Using its power to prosecute without using the Crown Prosecution Service, the Post Office prosecuted dozens of former sub-postmasters citing evidence from Horizon. Mr Justice Fraser found that Horizon was not as robust as the Post Office said it was.

Yesterday’s announcement of the 39 referrals is likely to put the legal spotlight on the Post Office prosecutors. The Appeal Court may consider questions of whether the integrity of the  criminal justice system has been compromised.

A Post Office statement yesterday on the referrals said,

“The Post Office has been assisting the Criminal Cases Review Commission since applications were first made to them by a number of former postmasters. We have always accepted our serious obligations and responsibilities to the Commission’s work.

We have not yet received statements of reasons from the Commission about the referrals they are making to the Court of Appeal.  We will be looking carefully at the Commission’s decision when we have that information and continue to fulfil all their requirements of us.

“We have also been doing all we can to ensure that, in the light of the findings in the Horizon judgment, further disclosure is provided as appropriate in other cases where Post Office acted as prosecutor, not just those reviewed by the CCRC.  The CCRC’s reasoning will be applied to those cases, which are being reviewed by an external team of criminal lawyers.

“We won’t be commenting on individual cases, because it would be inappropriate to prejudge the outcome of the important work that the CCRC is continuing to do or the Court of Appeal’s processes.”

Comment:

Imagine if the Department for Work and Pensions mistakenly sent bills to large numbers of benefit claimants for tens of thousands of pounds they did not owe because of a faulty computer system; and then, when the distressed claimants could not afford to pay the phantom debts, the DWP took them to court, made them bankrupt and took away their homes and livelihoods.

In the Post Office’s case, it is an injustice that has been allowed to continue nearly two decades. And it has gone entirely unpunished, without fair compensation being paid.

But now that the Post Office Horizon scandal has made legal history, perhaps the civil service will take more seriously calls among MPs, peers and former sub-postmasters for a judge-led inquiry.

Until now, civil servants have regarded the scandal as a skin irritant that could be cured by applying a little soothing ointment.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission has shown it is taking the injustices seriously, as have Boris Johnson and the civil courts.  Civil servants could follow reluctantly, as if they were waiting for instructions from the Post Office. Or they could lead.

Thank you David Orr for emailing a link to the BBC story.

Post Office reviews more prosecutions – Nick Wallis

Sub-postmaster convictions to be considered by Court of Appeal – Computer Weekly

 

Only a judge-led inquiry will change “rotten” Post Office as IT scandal continues, MPs told

By Tony Collins

Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who spearheaded legal action against the Post Office over its Horizon IT system, told MPs on Tuesday that the Post Office is “rotten underneath” and will not change without a judge-led inquiry.

Horizon victims Wendy Buffrey and Tracey Felstead also called for a judge-led inquiry at a hearing of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee.

The committee had its first hearing this week on the Post Office Horizon controversy. At its second hearing on  24 March, its MPs are expected to question the Post Office’s CEO Nick Read, the former CEO, Paula Vennells, Fujitsu, a business minister and a representative from UK Government Investments which has a place on the Post Office board.

The scandal is, in part, over the Post Office’s decision to dismiss unjustly hundreds of business people who ran local post offices. They were dismissed  because of shortfalls shown on the Horizon branch accounting system which had many hidden defects.

While keeping faults hidden, the Post Office, pursued sub-postmasters for supposed debts based on “evidence” from Horizon. Dozens of sub-postmasters  were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon evidence and many made bankrupt. Hundreds of lives were ruined.

Since a judge’s scathing criticism of the Post Office in rulings last year, the Post Office and Martin Callanan,  a business minister in the House of Lords, have said lessons will be learnt but Bates said he has “yet to be convinced things will change at the Post Office”.

He said the Post Office has promised to change its ways many times before but “it never happens”.

Bates said he had spoken briefly to Nick Read who took over the job as Post Office CEO in September last year. Bates said he wished Read well but described him to the BEIS committee as “very much like a new coat on old paintwork”.  He added that the wood underneath is “rotten” and called for a judge-led inquiry to “get to the bottom of things”.

Bates might have been referring, in part, to some of those within the corporate Post Office who chased sub-postmasters for questionable shortfalls and took legal actions against them.

Also giving evidence to MPs were Andy Furey of the Communication Workers Union and chartered accountants from 2nd Sight whom the Post Office paid to investigate sub-postmaster complaints. The Post Office dismissed 2nd Sight after their interim findings criticised aspects of the Horizon system.

What the witnesses told MPs indicates that many questions over the scandal remain unanswered:

  • Who on the Post Office board agreed to spend an estimated £100m or more, over time, on avoidable legal costs to fight the claims of sub-postmasters?
  • Does the civil service have a conflict of interest in deciding whether to support a judge-led inquiry, given that a judge may criticise officials for being a party to, or turning a blind eye, to the Horizon scandal as it unfolded?
  • Does the Horizon IT scandal continue?  It emerges that the Post Office maintains control over, and is dealing in secret with, an unknown number of sub-postmasters who were not part of Alan Bates’ High Court litigation but who have experienced problems with Horizon, including shortfalls. The Post Office has made no commitment to paying them compensation or returning their losses.
  • Why have people not been held to account although it is months since a High Court ruling was scathing in its criticism of the Post Office’s conduct and costs during the litigation, its dealings with sub-postmasters,  the inaccuracy of corporate statements to the media and Parliament and the withholding of relevant evidence from the court?
  • Could sub-postmasters continue to be blamed for shortfalls they know nothing about if nothing fundamentally changes?
  • Will the minutes of Post Office board meetings be published to enable scrutiny of the costly and a futile decision last year to try and remove the judge in the Horizon IT litigation?
  • Will those minutes, if published, reveal whether the civil service has been a party to Post Office board’s decisions?
  • In any dispute between he civil service and MPs, including Boris Johnson, over whether to hold a judge-led inquiry, who would win?

Asked whether the Post Office’s compensation of £57.75m to former sub-postmasters represented justice., Furey replied  “Absolutely not.”

He said it is “so important to get a judge-led inquiry”.” He added that the  vast majority of people operating local Post Office “want to provide a fabulous community service and are part of the fabric of society”. But when money went missing, the Post Office’s position was to “presume the sub-postmasters were guilty”.

He said the culture of the Post Office was to defend Horizon at all costs. “From the outset they could not have a position where Horizon could be questionable because that would jeopardise its business plan, its operating model and its ability to make profits”.  After accusing local businessmen and women of taking money that had been shown as shortfalls on Horizon, the Post Office escorted them out of their buildings and told them they could not visit their own post offices again even if their homes were above or at the back of them.

“This is a national scandal,” Furey told MPs, adding, “It has impacted on peoples’ reputations and the Post Office needs to be held to account”.  What is known about the scandal today has emerged only because of the litigation brought about by Alan Bates and other claimants, he said.

“The PO should hide its head in shame.”

Chartered accountant Ron Warmington of 2nd sight said his company only agreed to accept a contract with the Post Office to investigate the complaints of sub-postmasters on the basis that it wanted to establish the truth,

But the Post Office withheld information.  “Frankly,” he said,  “it was one of the worst and most difficult investigations I have ever carried out in terms of the client relationship.”

BBC Panorama is due to broadcast a documentary on the Horizon scandal on 23 March – how the Post Office covered up evidence of miscarriages of justice.

Comment:

Alan Bates called during the hearing for the “dead wood” within the Post Office to be cleared out. He referred to people who “knew the truth” but carried on with the actions against sub-postmasters.

But clearing out dead wood is not going to happen: the civil service and the Post Office do not want accountability or a judge-led inquiry.

Boris Johnson has suggested that he supports an inquiry but it is likely the civil service will have the final say.

Antony Jay, co-writer of “Yes minister”, said one thing he had learned in researching the TV series was that the civil service was the “real government”.  .

He told the Daily Telegraph that, deep in their hearts, most politicians respected civil servants but “deep in their hearts most civil servants despised politicians”. He said,

“After researching and writing 44 episodes and a play, I find government much easier to understand by looking at ministers as public relations consultants to the real government – which is, of course, the Civil Service.”

Which raises the question: why would the civil service want a judge-led inquiry? By funding and sanctioning Post Office actions that led to the scandal, the civil service has much to lose by any inquiry and nothing to gain.

Indeed it is clear it failed in its role of scrutinising, challenging and not accepting at face value what it was told by the Post Office.

A judge-led inquiry may still happen though, if MPs, peers, committees and Parliament generally, keep campaigning for one.

Clearly, for the victims of the scandal, what the Post Office has done and what the state has sanctioned, knowingly or not,  can never be undone. But not having an inquiry, not paying fair compensation, not holding people to account and offering up a plate of platitudes instead makes things much worse.

As things stand, officials and business ministers seem happy to accept 20 years of injustice and hundreds of lives ruined in order to protect a public institution and the civil service.

Today, across the world, the UK has a reputation for justice and a sometimes grudging fairness. But the more the state tolerates the damage caused by the Horizon scandal, the more it openly and fragrantly repudiates those virtues of justice and fairness.

MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Horizon IT scandal

Falsely accused ex Post Office workers demand judge-led inquiry – New Statesman

PM commits to Post Office inquiry – Nick Wallis’ blog

BEIS civil servants – are they hoisting their own petard? – Problems with Post Office Ltd blog

Accountability of the civil service? – Eleanor Shaikh’s research

Did Post Office chiefs get off lightly CWU, commnications union blog

 

Some of this state-sanctioned conduct would not be out of place in China or North Korea… the Horizon scandal in summary

By Tony Collins

  1. A knock on your mother-in-law’s front door at 3am. A state-sanctioned investigations team wants to interview you over stolen money you know nothing about.
  2. Your hands are bound and you are also handcuffed to one police officer on your left and another on your right. A state-owned institution says thousands of pounds is missing. It is confident you have taken it.
  3. You haven’t taken a penny but your protests count for nothing. The institution has the evidence from its computer system.
  4. You are not allowed to see your family. You are put in a vehicle and not told where you are going.
  5. You are taken to prison, kept in a cell all day and fed through a hatch. You see another prisoner who has committed suicide.
  6.  Before sending you to prison, a judge says you’ve stolen from pensioners. You are asked if you’ve used the stolen money for your recent holiday.
  7. In fact you are in prison because you had the misfortune to be a user of the institution’s computer system – called “Horizon” – at a time when it was showing discrepancies.
  8. Once a large and inexplicable shortfall appears on Horizon, more follow.  It’s the usual pattern.
  9. You are required to make good every shortfall now and in the future.  It is no excuse to say you haven’t stolen any money or made any mistakes. Evidence from Horizon is sacrosanct.
  10. If you cannot pay for the shortfalls, the institution, the Post Office, will make monthly deductions from your income, make you sell your home or make you bankrupt.
  11. You were given an impossible choice: a) accept the computer’s evidence at face value and agree to give to the Post Office any amount of money it requires you to pay now and in the future, or b) challenge the computer’s evidence and be prosecuted as dishonest.
  12. You challenged Horizon and ended up in court. Here, the denials of a branch counter clerk were unlikely to be believed against the evidence from a large and much-respected publicly-owned institution.
  13. The jury accepted that the computer was correct.  The computer seemed to work well for thousands of people every day. Why would it go wrong just in your case? But you didn’t realise then that, to everyone who complained about Horizon, the Post Office said they were the only one.
  14. You lose your job, cannot pay the mortgage and lose your home. You are traumatised, have an electronic tag, go on medication and try twice to commit suicide.
  15. Why have the courts and jury preferred the evidence from a computer system to your denials?
  16. Many years after prison has left an indelible mark on your mental well-being, it will emerge that thousands of reports on Horizon-related problems have been kept secret.
  17. The system’s problems are kept a secret for more than a decade while the Post Office, with apparent impunity, prosecutes and persecutes.
  18. To clear your name, the onus was on you and other accused to prove the system was flawed.
  19. But you had no right to see the system’s audit data. You had no way of proving whether the computer was showing non-existent shortfalls.
  20. Some families try to avoid the prosecution of a family member by raising tens of thousands of pounds to pay the Post Office for shortfalls they suspect are not real but cannot prove it. The Post Office still prosecutes.
  21. In one of the world’s most advanced nations, governments and civil service leaders turn a blind eye to a scandal that has been obvious for years to those not employed directly by the Post Office.
  22. Far from holding anyone accountable, the UK state appoints those ultimately responsible for running the Post Office and  Fujitsu, supplier of the Horizon system, to top jobs in the public sector.
  23. The Post Office has no close oversight because it is an “arm’s length body”. The state owns more than 100 ALBs. What is to stop any number of them turning on the public as the Post Office has turned on hundreds of Horizon users? In 2015, a committee of MPs found there was little understanding across government of how arm’s length bodies ought to work.
  24. It’s the job of state-funded auditors, non-executive directors, ministers and civil servants to challenge what they are told by the boards of arm’s length bodies.  If they accept assurances at face value, the governmental system of oversight breaks down. But in 2020 business minister Martin Callanan suggests that civil servants were unknowingly misled by the Post Office. Was this confirmation that the system of oversight has failed with appalling consequences?
  25. Since 2010, the media and Parliamentarians, particularly former defence minister James Arbuthnot (now Lord Arbuthnot) have tried to draw the attention of ministers to the Horizon scandal. But civil servants and postal services ministers have preferred the word of the Post Office to the pleadings of constituency sub-postmasters.
  26. After setting up a costly mediation scheme and hiring forensic accountants Second Sight to address the concerns about Horizon among MPs, particularly Arbuthnot, the Post Office ends the mediation scheme and summarily dismisses Second Sight whose report criticises Horizon.
  27. In totalitarian states, it may not be unusual for innocent people to be handcuffed and taken to prison because they questioned the output of a state-owned institution’s computer system. But in the UK?
  28. BBC Panorama reveals in 2015 that it is possible for engineers working for Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier,  to access Post Office branch accounting systems and alter lines of code, to fix bugs, without the local Horizon users knowing.
  29. These changes could affect the branch’s financial records as shown on Horizon.
  30. Panorama is correct. Fujitsu staff can alter branch Horizon systems remotely but the Post Office issues a lengthy public denial of Panorama’s correct disclosures. Ministers and civil servants accept the Post Office’s denial.
  31. In at least two families,  the misfortune of being a Horizon user at the time of a glitch or training-related issue becomes a factor in  suicide. In other families there are attempted suicides. A  sub-postmaster suffers a stroke shortly after the Post Office wrongly suspends him, claiming incorrectly that he owes £65,000.
  32. The Post Office had the power to enrol state resources in prosecuting sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon.
  33. Even after the extent of Horizon’s problems has come to light during High Court trials, the UK government continues to hold nobody to account.
  34. That the scandal was obvious to outsiders helped Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster who was one of Horizon’s earliest victims, to obtain venture funding, via solicitors Freeths, of tens of millions of pounds for a High Court case against the Post Office.
  35. The Post Office tried to oppose Bates’ group litigation by claiming every individual case was different. The judge disagreed and the group litigation went ahead in 2017.
  36. Even after the first of a series of planned High Court trials started, the full extent of Horizon’s problems were kept hidden.
  37. Thousands of internal reports on Horizon’s problems were not given to the High Court until late 2019 – after several hearings and judgements in the case.
  38. In 2020, Kelly Tolhurst, the then Post Office minister, refused a request to pay a fair sum in compensation to former sub-postmasters.  She suggested in her letter that the compensation being paid by the Post Office (about £58m) was enough. Last week business minister Martin Callanan also refused state compensation. His words were almost identical to Tolhurst’s, implying that their words were drafted by civil servants at the Post Office’s parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which appears to see its role as defending the Post Office against outside criticism.
  39. To those who sold homes and lost businesses because of the Post Office’s demands for payment, under threat of criminal and civil action, the compensation being offered is no compensation at all  It will not, in the end, come close to covering their losses.
  40. Today, 10 years after a pregnant sub-postmistress fainted in the dock as she was sentenced to 15 months for stealing money she knew nothing about, and woke up in hospital in handcuffs she tried to hide, her criminal conviction has not yet been quashed. She considered taking her own life.  The state’s overriding duty to protect its citizens seems not to have applied to her.
  41. Another ordinary law-abiding Horizon user went to prison in handcuffs but her criminal conviction is still in place nearly 20 years later.
  42. Her conviction is likely to be quashed this year or next but she will have endured for much of her adult life being branded a criminal by the state. No amount of compensation can replace 20 lost years of being presumed guilty.
  43. Boris Johnson last week promised an inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal but it is likely to be resisted by civil servants. Officials may see anything other than a narrow inquiry into procedures, contracts and technical matters as not being in their interest.
  44. Last week BEIS confirmed it will not hold anyone accountable. Instead, the new business minister Lord Callanan offered Parliament a series of promises from Sir Humphrey’s phrasebook: a new framework … a working group … ministerial meetings …. cultural and organisational changes … learning lessons …  a major overhaul … strengthened relationships … productive conversations … close monitoring of progress … constant reviews … genuine commercial partnerships … direct addressing of past events … the delivery of support on the ground… accelerating a programme of improvement … engaging with stakeholders … seek evidence of real positive change. .. further accountability mechanisms.
  45. It is likely that some or most the above stock phrases will be used by every BEIS minister when giving a formal response to the Horizon IT scandal in letters, statements and Parliamentary debates.
  46. But those seeking justice will continue to campaign for fair compensation at a minimum.
  47. The campaigners in Parliament include Lord Arbuthnot, Lord Berkeley, Gill Furniss MP, Kate Osborne MP, Kevan Jones MP and Lucy Allan MP. For campaigners, the High Court rulings in favour of the sub-postmasters mark only the end of the beginning.
  48.  Some of the points below may add to grounds for the state to pay fair compensation.

Comment

A scandal perpetuated?

To be fair to the Post Office, it has acted as if it were answerable to nobody because it was indeed not answerable.

It had the very occasional polite tap on the knuckles by officials at its parent organisation, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS]. But nothing more.

In effect the Post Office was untouchable. It received hundreds of millions of pounds from BEIS in state aid but not even the National Audit Office was able to investigate how the money was spent.

Again, to be fair to the Post Office, it was partly in the hands of Horizon’s supplier Fujitsu when it came to understanding faults in Horizon. Fujitsu kept its own central error logs and the reports of Horizon problems. It could charge the Post Office for access to data beyond a certain point.

Given the circumstances, the Post Office did what large institutions tend to do when things go badly wrong: they  blame the weakest links in the corporate chain, the human operators.

Fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max were, at first, blamed on the weakest inks – pilots – instead of on a poorly-designed onboard computer system.

Again, after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion, the plant’s human operators, the weakest links, were blamed, which initially helped to cover up the reactor’s design and construction deficiencies.

And after the crash of a military Chinook killed 25 VIPs on the Mull of Kintyre, the two dead pilots, the weakest links, were blamed while deficiencies with the helicopter’s computer systems were hidden.

In the case of the Horizon scandal, the weakest links when the system went wrong were the sub-postmasters. About 550 sub-postmasters took part in subsequent litigation but the Horizon shortfall scandal might have claimed another 500 or so victims who hadn’t realised at first that they weren’t alone.

That the Post Office’s parent department BEIS appears to have no interest in paying compensation or holding accountable anyone for the Horizon scandal is not a surprise given that it is part of the problem.

Indeed, it’ll be no surprise if its civil servants resist making good on Boris Johnson’s promise of an inquiry. There are already signs of this, according to Computer Weekly.

For years, BEIS and its successive postal services ministers have accepted the Post Office’s word when it was obvious to Computer Weekly and Parliamentarians that a scandal was taking place under the noses of those running the department.

The Post Office’s party line continues?

In their carefully-worded reactions to the Horizon IT scandal, the current Post Office CEO Nick Read, Post Office chairman Tim Parker, former Postal Services minister Kelly Tolhurst and a current business minister Lord Callanan, have all referred to wrongs as being “in the past”.

Perhaps unwittingly, they appear collectively to be following a party line – although Sir Peter Fraser QC, the High Court judge in the Horizon case, was particularly critical of Post Office witnesses who appeared to follow a party line.

Perhaps Read, Parker, the Post Office press office and Lord Callanan wish to consign the Horizon scandal to history.

-In its corporate apology the Post Office’s statement said,

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

In his apology, Tim Parker, Post Office chairman, said that the December 2019 High Court judgement,

“makes findings about previous versions of the [Horizon] system and past behaviours …”

In January 2020, the then postal services minister Kelly Tolhurst said in a letter to Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance that the Post Office accepted and recognised that,

“… in the past they had got things wrong…”

Last week, business minister Lord Callanan said at the end of a short debate in Parliament on the Horizon IT scandal,

“Post Office Ltd has accepted that, in the past, it got things badly wrong … ”

“We accept that, in the past, we got things wrong …”

“the Post Office is also continuing to directly address past events for affected postmasters …”

Nick Read, the current Post Office CEO said there was a need to

“… learn lessons from the past.”

[My emphases]

But the scandal is not in the past. Far from it.

In February 2020, Mark Baker, a sub-postmaster and spokesman for the communications union CWU, told a BBC File on 4 documentary that he knows of Horizon shortfall incidents of nearly one a week continuing in one UK region alone this year.

File on 4 also raised the question of whether it is easier to blame “user error” than the Post Office’s having to fine Fujitsu for not fixing a bug within a pre-defined time limit.

Another reason the apologies of the Post Office and ministers for “past” wrongs are disingenuous is that they avoid any apology for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation.

In his High Court rulings, Sir Peter Fraser was prolific in his  criticisms of the Post Office’s dealings with sub-postmasters but he also attacked its conduct in the much more recent litigation.

It is this conduct that demeans the reputation of UK government and public sector institutions as a whole.

When ministers and the Post Office refer to such conduct as historic they are, in essence,  excusing it. By apologising for past events only, business ministers appear to have become apologists for the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation … conduct such as this:

  • Several Post Office witnesses did not give accurate or impartial evidence to the High Court in 2018 and 2019.  That wasn’t in a past era.
  • A current Post Office director tried to mislead the High Court, as did a witness from IT supplier Fujitsu. This wasn’t in a past era.
  • The Post Office opposed the setting up of a group litigation order, sought to have no substantive trial listed at all and, when this failed, tried to strike out much of the evidence of sub-postmasters before the trials started.
  • During the first trial the Post Office, said the judge, seemed to try and put the court “in terrorem”  – which means serving or intended to threaten or intimidate.” None of this was in a past era.
  • The  judge said some Post Office costs were “extraordinarily high, unreasonable and disproportionate”.
  • In addition to the above costs, the Post Office hired four QCs and two firms on solicitors. It also fielded 14 witnesses against the six lead claimants for the sub-postmasters.
  • The publicly-funded Post Office appeared to be trying to rack up costs, perhaps to drain the funding of the former sub-postmasters and force them into submission.
  • The Post Office sought to have the judge removed – a highly unusual and costly approach to the litigation.  The judge expressed surprise that the Post Office applied to remove him near the end of a lengthy trial. If the judge had stood down, a re-trial would have happened, adding greatly to costs that were already tens of millions of pounds by this stage. It was only last year that the Post Office sought to have the judge removed –  not in a past era.

How many more business ministers will try to consign the Horizon scandal to the past?

That the scandal is one of the most serious group miscarriages of justice in decades is not in doubt.

But by not paying fair compensation, the state is, in essence, sending a signal to the public sector that if another group of innocent people are handcuffed, bundled into a van and taken into prison for doing nothing more than questioning the system, the state will care even less than it does today.

Holding nobody to account and not paying fair compensation also sends a message to the public and Parliament: that it is acceptable for a state-owned institution to conduct itself as if it were answerable to nobody.

One question that still remains unanswered is how a state-owed institution was able – perhaps is still able – to maintain a control and influence similar in status to that of a cult.

For more than two decades, the civil service and ministers accepted the Post Office’s criticisms of sub-postmasters. The courts and judges too.

The Post Office was also able to enlist the support of some the UK’s top QCs in litigation to fight sub-postmasters.

And the Post Office’s most senior witness in the case, whom the judge described as a very clever person,  seemed “entirely incapable of accepting any other view of the issues other than her own”, said the judge. She exercised her judgement to “paint the Post Office in the most favourable light possible, regardless of the facts”.

Other Post Office witnesses in the case were expected to give impartial evidence to the court but followed its party line. Even the Post Office’s expert witness who was professionally required to give impartial evidence to the court was, according to the judge, “partisan” in favour of the Post Office’s case.

The Post Office’s control extended to the sub-postmasters’ supposed trades union, the National Federation of Sub-postmasters: the Post Office secretly gave the Federation millions of pounds that could be clawed back if the Post Office disapproved of the Federation’s public criticisms.

Are BEIS civil servants and ministers, therefore, under the influence of a cult-like institution when they tell MPs the Horizon scandal is in the past and they refuse to apologise for conduct in the litigation, refuse compensation and refuse to hold anyone accountable?

Are the BEIS civil servants and ministers also remarkably naïve when they ask MPs and peers to accept a series of Sir Humphryisms instead of fair compensation for hundreds of damaged or ruined lives?  …  a new framework, ministerial meetings, a monitoring of progress… phrases that could be the output of platitude-generating software?

Do ministers really believe that the Post Office, after decades of control  and influence is able to change suddenly now that it has a new CEO and the Horizon scandal is acknowledged at the top of government?

If ministers want to convince us that the Post Office, BEIS and the government are genuinely contrite, they will pay fair compensation to former sub-postmasters  and hold to account those responsible for the scandal and the failure to put an early stop to its all-too-obvious traumatic consequences.

Acknowledgements:

Alan Bates

Karl FindersNick Wallis, Tim McCormack, Mark Baker, James Arbuthnot, Eleanor Shaikh,  Private Eye, File on 4, Panorama, Christopher Head

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

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