Category Archives: legal disputes

A message to ministers Paul Scully and Alok Sharma: your decision could change lives.

By Tony Collins

As ministers with the Post Office in your remit, you could change the lives of hundreds of families by setting up a judge-led inquiry. Or you could do what your predecessors did when faced with the Horizon scandal: shrug and side with the Post Office.  For any minister who goes into politics to make a difference,  this could be a career-defining decision .

Not all ministers are spokespeople for their departments. Now and again a minister will stand up to officials and go against what countless ministers have said before. That minister in 2011 was Liam Fox. His determination to put right a long-standing miscarriage of justice will not go down in history.  It’s not even mentioned in his entry in Wikipedia. But he knows he changed, for at least a generation, the lives of two families.

John Cook and Mike Tapper lost their sons in a notorious helicopter crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994.  Everyone on board died, including 25 senior police and intelligence officers.  The RAF found the two pilots, Flight-Lieutenants Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper, grossly negligent. But computer and other problems with the helicopter type, the Chinook Mk2,  were hidden until, five years after the crash, Computer Weekly published a 145-page report “RAF Justice – How the Royal Air Force blamed two dead pilots and covered up problems with the Chinook’s computer system FADEC.”  But the civil service and ministers still  kept to the official line that the pilots were to blame. Even a cross-party House of Lords committee that was set up to investigate the crash had no influence. It questioned the two air marshals who had found the pilots grossly negligent. One of the air marshals came to the committee with slides to show how the pilots had failed to keep the helicopter and its passengers safe. The committee found that the RAF had not justified its case against the pilots. But its report and a similar one from the Public Accounts Committee on the Chinook Mk2’s ‘s flaws were to no avail.  The Ministry of Defence repeated its line that there was no new evidence. For 16 years successive defence ministers and defence secretaries sided with the civil servants and RAF against the pilots. John Cook, father of pilot Rick, died before he saw the campaign’s conclusion.

It was not until Fox took over as defence secretary in 2010 that the official position began to change. He commissioned the first judge-led government investigation of the crash. It found that the defence establishment was wrong and the Cook and Tapper families were right.  Fox could have left it at that: as yet another independent inquiry report that made no difference, albeit a judge-led one. But Fox went much further. He took on the defence establishment.

The formal finding against the pilots could be overturned only by the Defence Council, a formal body on which sit the country’s defence leaders including the Chief of the Defence Staff, senior officers from the Royal Navy, Army and RAF, the head of the MoD and the Defence Secretary. How he achieved it we do not know, but somehow Fox came out a closed-doors meeting of the Defence Council with the finding of gross negligence set aside.  Subsequently, the Tapper and Cook families watched from the House of Commons gallery as Fox gave them an unequivocal apology. It mattered, because the pilots had young children who would now grow up with pride in their fathers who had died in the service of their country. Were it not for Fox, the civil service could today be asserting in their letters to the Cook and Tapper families that there was no new evidence and the pilots were to blame.

Horizon

Boris Johnson supports a government  inquiry into the Horizon scandal just as David Cameron supported a government inquiry into the blaming of the pilots for the Chinook crash. There is another common factor: the Horizon campaign for justice has the ardent support of Lord Arbuthnot who was a leading Parliamentary campaigner for the families of Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper. Lord Arbuthnot knows he has right on his side now, as he did then. But that may not be enough.

The Post Office retains its power and has the full support of a civil service that, in relation to the Horizon litigation’s aftermath, does not see itself as an entrenched and uncaring bureaucracy.

Justice campaigners who call for a judge-led inquiry into the Horizon scandal have no support from the civil service and the Post Office who want only a “review”. That is why it falls to Paul Scully and Alok Sharma to make the difficult decision on whether to insist, as Fox did, for a judge-led investigation.

Lord Arbuthnot gives one reason for wanting a judge-led inquiry,

“We need an inquiry and, since the Post Office has repeatedly given inaccurate information including to me, it needs to be led by a judge.”

It is a difficult decision for Scully and Sharma to take because, just as the civil service and ministers held to the wrong official line for 16 years in the Cook and Tapper case, the Post Office and civil service will hold to the wrong official line indefinitely without a Fox-like intervention.

An insight into the Post Office’s attitude to a judge-led inquiry can be gained from its history of thin-skinned reactions to scrutiny and criticism: it sacked and criticised accountants Second Sight who were critical of Horizon and it spent hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to remove the judge in the High Court Horizon trials whose rulings had favoured sub-postmasters; its verbal attacks on its critics during the High Court hearings were harsh and it tried to prevent much of the other side’s evidence being heard in court. Since the litigation, the Post Office has apologised for past events only, not for its conduct, inaccurate statements and high spending during the High Court trials,  all of which the judge criticised.

The civil service’s objections to a judge-led inquiry are likely to focus on three things: cost, a likely requirement to compromise necessary confidentiality and a possible awkward recommendation that government pays the legal and funding costs of sub-postmasters in their litigation against the Post Office.

These objections are one-sided. Put into context, a judge-led inquiry would cost less than 5% of the money the Post Office has spent on fighting sub-postmasters and settling the High Court litigation.

On confidentiality, it is true a judge-led inquiry would require an openness the civil service would find hard to accept, such as the disclosure of relevant internal emails. Scully’s department BEIS and HM Treasury’s UK Government Investments, as the body that provides a representative to sit on the Post Office board, would object to disclosing internal emails on public interest grounds. Officials often argue that what journalists call secrecy civil servants call a “safe space” to give candid advice to each other and to ministers in the interests of smooth government. But a lack of openness allowed the Horizon IT scandal to spread unchecked for more than a decade. Fujitsu, Horizon’s supplier, did not disclose problems with the system while sub-postmasters were prosecuted on the basis of Horizon’s stated resilience. The Post Office also did not disclose problems. It took High Court trials costing many tens of millions of pounds to establish the truth about Horizon’s flaws.

One indication of the Post Office’s attitude towards openness and scrutiny can be seen in its citing of the Official Secrets Act in its dealings with sub-postmasters, to the surprise of Sir Peter Fraser QC, the judge in the Horizon trials.  It was understandable that General Post Office workers during the two world wars were required to sign the Official Secrets Act when they were involved in wireless communications and intelligence gathering. But the Act’s use in dealings with sub-postmasters who have complained about Horizon is, arguably, a matter for an inquiry judge.

On the civil service’s objections to paying the legal and funding costs of the sub-postmasters’ litigation against the Post Office, it was the dogged efforts of former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, his lead claimants and their legal team  that led to the unearthing of what is being described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

It was this legal action that proved the Horizon faults and has led to reviews of more than 500 potentially unsafe criminal convictions. Boris Johnson has called the Post Office’s actions taken against sub-postmasters a scandal. He said he has met some of the victims. He is aware that being blamed for shortfalls shown on Horizon could lead to imprisonment, bankruptcy and suicide. But for Bates’ litigation, those 500 or more criminal convictions would not now be under review – a reason in itself to meet the litigation costs from public funds of Bates and the other sub-postmasters?

Spin

Without a judge-led inquiry,  the spin will doubtless continue. The Post Office has announced that the High Court settlement of Bates’ group litigation was agreed by both sides. But Post Office officials know that sub-postmasters had no choice but to settle because of a risk their funding would otherwise run out, even though they had won every one of six judgements so far and seemed set to win all further judgements. The Post Office had no such funding risk: it could have walked out of the mediation with no consequences for any of its individuals. The sub-postmasters did not have the same freedom.

The result was that the Post Office succeeded in ending a legal case it was losing by paying the fees of lawyers and litigation funders and leaving the sub-postmasters, its legal opponents, out of pocket, some of them by hundreds of thousands of pounds.

As of now, five months after the litigation ended, the sub-postmasters remain punished and the Post Office unpunished.

Nobody outside the Post Office and civil service will think it right to abandon former sub-postmasters who have been through years of trauma, including a difficult High Court case and who, in the end, have performed a public service on an historic scale.

The Post Office remains fully in control: at no point in nearly 20 years of the scandal have ministers sided with sub-postmasters, as Fox sided with the Cook and Tapper families.

Scully and Sharma have it within them to break the mould. The easy option would be to shrug off calls for the accountability and scrutiny of a judge-led inquiry. Or they could stand up to their officials, their department and the civil service hierarchy including Downing Street officials who seem determined to undermine Boris Johnson’s commitment to “get to the bottom” of the scandal.

Justice for the families of Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper was a long time in coming. But campaigners knew it would come eventually.

If this government decides merely to set up a safe “review”, it will set off more Parliamentary calls for a judge-led inquiry and sub-postmasters may have to wait for a new government and new ministers who have no equity in what has gone before.

But Scully and Sharma may want to right nearly two decades of wrongs during this Parliament. When, in the future, their Parliamentary careers end, they will then be able to feel quietly satisfied that they were able to make a difference. Such an opportunity does not present itself in every ministerial career.

One thing is certain: structural, fundamental and attitudinal change will never come to the Post Office however many new CEOs it has. As Alan Bates knows well, the Post Office has shown during the litigation and since that it will yield temporarily to weaker forces only when the law requires it.

Scully and Sharma do not have to give up supporting the Post Office or the civil service to side with sub-postmasters. But setting up a judge-led inquiry would require ministerial determination to make it happen. Paul Scully and Alok Sharma – your decision could have a deep and lasing effect on the lives of hundreds of families.

This piece has been emailed to Paul Scully and Alok Sharma.
Peer demands judge-led inquiry into Horizon fiasco – Nick Wallis’ Postofficetrial
Alan Bates on the need for a judge-led inquiry – Karl Flinders, Computer Weekly

Horizon IT scandal: has Goliath won?

By Tony Collins

Have Post Office officials, despite a series of highly critical High Court judgements against them, escaped masterfully from what Boris Johnson called a “scandal”?

BBC Radio Wales has broadcast an excellent documentary on the Post Office Horizon IT scandal. It features Noel Thomas who had devoted his life to the Post Office, first as a postman for 32 years and then as a postmaster for 12 years.

He worked his way up since the age of 17. But one Thursday morning at 7.30am the life he’d built up over decades began to fall apart. A Post Office investigations team wanted to interview him about “having his hands in the till”.

His denials counted for nothing. Investigators insisted he had taken money. The Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system supplied by Fujitsu showed shortfalls of £52,000. The Post Office prosecuted him and he was given a nine-month jail sentence in 2006.

After prison, Thomas was called a thief in the supermarket. His children suffered taunts that their father had been to prison.

An unsympathetic Post Office chased Thomas for debts shown on Horizon and he went bankrupt. He ended up losing £250,000; and all the while nobody at the Post Office told him that Horizon screens could show non-existent shortfalls without any fault on the part of the sub-postmaster.

In the years to come, as Thomas tried to come to terms with his new life as a family man who was now a convicted criminal, he learned that he was not alone: the Post Office had demanded hundreds of sub-postmasters make good inexplicable shortfalls shown on Horizon.

But for Thomas and other victims of the Horizon IT scandal things began to look up in March 2017 when, led by campaigning former  sub-postmaster Alan Bates, they won the consent of the High Court for a group litigation against the Post Office.

The litigation was a clear success for Bates, 550 other claimants and their legal team.  By the time the two sides sat around the mediation table late last year, the judge had made several rulings, largely in the favour of the sub-postmasters.

Would the judge’s criticisms put the Post Office on the defensive at the mediation? His main judgement had criticised the Post Office’s “oppressive” behaviour in its dealings with sub-postmasters.  Mr Justice Fraser also criticised the Post Office’s conduct in the litigation: given the high costs of the litigation, it was perhaps extraordinary that the Post Office was said by the judge to have “resisted timely resolution of this Group Litigation whenever it can …”

It was indeed obvious to the sub-postmasters that the more the publicly-funded Post Office delayed  the proceedings, the greater the risk its opponents would run out of litigation funding.

Was this fair?

The judge had also found that the Post Office tried to mislead the High Court and  keep relevant information from being heard.  The appeal court likened the Post Office to a Victorian mill-owner.

Now, as the two sides sat around the mediation table, the High Court was about to publish an entirely new ruling. It would say that sub-postmasters had been forced into paying shortfalls shown on a Fujitsu Horizon system that had hidden bugs and systemic weaknesses.

The Post Office had spent more than a decade denying that these faults existed and had given misleadingly reassuring statements to Parliament and the media. The Post Office had prosecuted dozens of sub-postmasters on the basis of “robust” evidence from Horizon while not saying that Fujitsu engineers could alter branch accounts without the sub-postmasters’ knowledge.

The new ruling would find that the Post Office’s own expert witness was partisan, as were some of the other Post Office witnesses.

If all this was a cue for a contrite Post Office to make amends at mediation, there was little sign of it. It emerged from the mediation paying barely the sub-postmasters’ litigation costs.

Indeed, the £57.75m settlement figure would not have covered the sub-postmasters’ costs had there not been voluntary fee and other reductions on the part of the group’s legal team and a company that provided loans for the litigation.

These reductions, which were made out of sympathy for the former sub-postmasters,  allowed a fund of about £11.5m from the £57.75m to be distributed among the 550.

But the fund will pay only a small percentage of losses. And it doesn’t pay compensation for ruined lives.

“Scandal” says Boris Johnson

The prime minister refers to the whole matter as a scandal. He spoke in the House of Commons of the “disasters that have befallen many Post Office workers”.

But a Post Office statement to BBC Radio Wales offered no hope of any further money for the 550. It referred to its shortcomings as in the “past”. The statement said,

“A comprehensive final settlement was jointly agreed by the Post Office and the claimants in the group litigation last year. We apologise to those affected by our past shortcomings and we are continuing to address these directly…”

That the settlement leaves Thomas with only a fraction of the £250,000 he has lost – and nothing in compensation – is not the concern of the Post Office or its parent department BEIS. organisation.

How did the Post Office extricate itself relatively painlessly mid-way through an embarrassing  litigation, in which its competence, credibility and conduct were questioned repeatedly by a High Court judge?

Mediation

It may be  thought generally that, in mediation, the two sides enter talks to settle their differences on equal terms.

Not in this case.

On one side was a publicly funded institution. The other side comprised small businessmen and women who were funded by limited, expensive loans.

Worse for the sub-postmasters, the Post Office had already made decisions during the litigation that showed it was prepared to add to costs for both sides. Its decisions included applying for the removal of the judge near the end of a lengthy trial.  Had its application succeeded, it would have necessitated the costly trial being abandoned and a new one started under a different judge.

James Hartley of solicitors Freeths, which represented sub-postmasters in the litigation, gave  an interview to Computer Weekly shortly after the mediation settlement was announced in December last year.

He said that if his side had carried on with the litigation it was likely the sub-postmasters would have ended up with nothing. He said his side had obtained the best deal possible but sub-postmasters would not recover anything like their full losses.

“This was always understood by everyone because we knew the group action would have a lot of costs,” said Hartley. Had a settlement not been reached, the two further trials planned would have needed more funding.

“Even if we had got that funding, which is not certain, for every £1m we got from the case, £3m would have to go back to the funders. Every month that had gone on in the case, the value of damages available to claimants would have gone down, to the point where they would have got nothing even if we had won.”

The Post Office has made the point in its public statements that the settlement figure was agreed by both sides.  But mediation was not conducted on an equal financial footing.

In a different context, a few months before the mediation, Mr Justice Fraser had commented on the Post Office’s power when compared to the sub-postmasters.

He had said in his “Common Issues” judgement of March 2019,

“There is no doubt that the Post Office is in an extraordinarily powerful position compared to each and every one of its SPMs [sub-postmasters][. It appears to wield that power with a degree of impunity.”

Did the Post Office still wield power with impunity?

Convictions

At least Thomas, if he is not to recover his losses or receive any compensation,  can look forward to having his criminal record removed – his name cleared.

Or could even this be denied him?

There is no time pressure on the state to overturn wrongful convictions.  The simplest solution would be to set aside convictions en masse on the basis that all the prosecutions arose out of untrustworthy shortfalls shown on a computer system that was not as robust as prosecutors claimed.

But the state could, in theory, handle each wrongful conviction referred to appeal separately, review thousands of pages of documents in each case, and eventually overturn convictions when some of the falsely accused are no longer alive to see justice.

This may indeed be the state’s preferred route although there have already been years of delays in reviewing the cases.

Whether the P9st Office would prefer a group or individual review of convictions at appeal hearings is unclear. What is obvious, though, is that the longer it takes to quash convictions, the more it delays any civil claims for damages and compensation arising out of wrongful prosecutions.

A Houdini escape?

Nearly 20 years after Alan Bates had his contract to run a local post office in Wales terminated without reason when he queried apparent phantom shortfalls on Horizon, he is still seeking justice.

He has raised tens of millions in litigation funding, won the right to launch a group litigation order and his legal team has proved in the High Court that Horizon was not the robust system the Post Office had claimed.

His team could hardly have been more successful in exposing the inherent institutional failings that led to hundreds of miscarriages of justice.

Why then does  justice still elude him?

Comment

The Post Office says it is changing. It is learning lessons. It has a new CEO. But the judge’s comments suggested that the Post Office’s resentment of criticism and critics is deeply institutional.

The judge said the Post Office seems to act with impunity. The word “impunity” means acting as if exempt punishment, penalty of harm.

How can a public institution, however many new CEOs it has, change its spots?

Arguably the Post Office remains as financially powerful, dominating and secretive as ever. Recently, it is said to have reached secret settlements with Horizon victims who were not part of Bates’ group litigation.

For Bates and other sub-postmasters, their campaign or justice moves from the High Court to Westminster. But politicians may not, it appears, have the final say.

“Rats”

There is no provision in law to punish prosecuting authorities that prosecute wrongfully. But the public at least has a right to expect that elected politicians will be able to hold prosecuting institutions to account.

Boris Johnson wants an independent inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal, as do MPs, Alan Bates and many others.  But does the civil service and particularly the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Post Office’s parent?

Lord Arbuthnot, a long-time campaigner for justice, told BBC Radio Wales that he is heartened by the prime minister’s support for an inquiry.

“I was given enormous heart that the prime minister himself described this as a scandal and he said there would be an independent inquiry.

” Now the rats will try to get at that. They will try to make it less independent. They will try to bring it under the Department for Business and Enterprise and that is something I hope the Prime Minister, who seems to have a good deal of sway in this government will be able to resist”.

Noel Thomas, Alan Bates and other former sub-postmasters sued the Post Office seeking damages for financial loss, deceit, duress, unconscionable dealing, harassment and unjust enrichment.

But the civil service seems not to accept that any of these things merit an independent inquiry.

It is extraordinary that a publicly-owned institution has been established in the High Court to have been behind hundreds of grievous miscarriages of justice and yet the victims have not received a full refund of their losses let alone compensation. And those responsible have not been held to account.

Unless Parliament intervenes and orders the setting up of an independent inquiry, it is clear that Goliath, with the support of civil servants at BEIS, will win in the end.

**

Thank you to Tim McCormack whose extensive knowledge and understanding of Post Office affairs never ceases to surprise me.

**

BBC Panorama – scandal at the Post Office – Monday 23 March

Journalist Nick Wallis will present this documentary about when senior managers at the Post Office knew the truth. Did they continue to prosecute postmasters for stealing when they knew technology could be to blame?

Wallis investigates what the BBC says could be Britain’s biggest ever miscarriage of justice scandal and uncovers evidence of a cover-up at the Post Office.

Alan Bates – the details man

Secret Post Office deals cause fury – Computer Weekly

BBC Radio Wales – Post Office IT scandal

Postofficetrial website

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.”

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

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

Nine-year outsourcing deal caught on camera?

By Tony Collins

This photo is of a Southwest One board that was surplus to requirements.

Southwest One continues to provide outsourced services to Avon and Somerset Police. The 10-year contract expires next year.

But unless Southwest One continues to provide residual IT services to the police, the company – which is owned by IBM – will be left without its three original public partners.

Photo a metaphor?

IBM and Somerset County Council set up Southwest One in 2007  to propel council services “beyond excellence”.

Joining in the venture were Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon and Somerset Police. The hope was that it would recruit other organisations,  bringing down costs for all.

It didn’t happen.

An outsourcing deal that was supposed to save Somerset residents about £180m over 10 years ended early, in 2016, with losses for the residents of about £70m. The council and Southwest One settled a High Court legal dispute in 2013.

Taunton Deane Borough Council also ended the deal early, in 2016.

Comment

Was it all the fault of Southwest One? Probably not. The success of the deal was always going to be judged, to some extent, on an assumption that other organisations would join Southwest One.

When that didn’t happen, two councils and a police force had to bear the main costs.

There was also the inherent problem that exists with most big council outsourcing deals: that it’s always difficult for a supplier to innovate, save money on the costs of running council services, invest significantly more in IT, spend less overall and still produce a healthy profit for the parent company.

It could be done if the council, police force or other public body was manifestly inefficient. But Somerset County Council outsourced what was, by its own admission, an excellent IT organisation.

Some at the time had no doubts about how the outsourcing deal would end up.

Southwest One – The complete story by Dave Orr

 

FT reports on a death after Post Office Horizon IT system shortfall

By Tony Collins

The FT reported yesterday on a class action against the Post Office over the “faulty” Horizon IT system.

In an article or more than 1,000 words, it said that 522 former sub-postmasters are involved in the legal action.

A procedural hearing with a managing judge will take place in October 2017, which should lead to a timetable for final resolution by the court.

The FT reported on two families (previously unpublicised cases) whose lives have been devastated by shortfalls shown on the Post Office’s Horizon branch accounting system.  In one case, the Post Office dismissed Deirdre Connolly, a former 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, she 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.

The FT also reported on a successful businessman, Phil Cowan, whose business ventures included a post office in Edinburgh run by his wife and her friend. He said that a £30,000 deficit shown on the branch electronic ledger account was a factor in his wife’s death from an accidental overdose of anti-depressants, alcohol and cold medicine. She was 47.

He attributed the shortfall to a technical glitch.

Cowan told the FT,

“This situation I know for a fact had a huge contribution to her passing away. It had a massive effect on her.”

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.

Court case

The legal action between the Post Office and the sub-postmasters could be said to be a simple one, at least from the PO’s perspective. Sub-postmasters signed a contract that held them responsible for losses shown on the branch accounting system (whether or not there was any evidence they gained from the shortfalls).

The Post Office’s lawyers will argue that there is no evidence that Horizon or any of its related elements such as network and communications equipment was to blame for the losses. Under its contract with sub-postmasters, the Post Office is entitled to pursue the former sub-postmasters for the losses.

It is this contract that is the main point of legal relevance, rather than claims by sub-postmasters that the losses were not real, that they didn’t steal any money and have had their lives, and their family’s lives, ruined by the Post Office’s actions against them.

For the sub-postmasters, lawyers will argue that errors were caused by software bugs and inadequate training and support. The FT article referred to a “pattern of bullying and intimidation by the Post Office dating back to shortly after Horizon was rolled out”.

After shortfalls were discovered, people were held and their homes searched,  Alan Bates of the Justice for Sub-postmasters Alliance told the FT. Freeths solicitors are handling the Alliance’s case.

Comment

The Post Office’s enforcement of its contract with sub-postmasters after discrepancies were found on Horizon raises the question of whether the law in this case has little – or perhaps nothing – to do with right and wrong.

The Post Office may have a contractual right to pursue former sub-postmasters for shortfalls shown on Horizon.

But does the Post Office’s conformance with the law – its contractual right to take action – make the action right?

In Vermont, it’s unlawful for women to be fitted with false teeth without the written permission of their husbands. It would be perfectly legal for Vermont’s lawyers to prosecute offenders. But being lawful to prosecute doesn’t make it right to do so.

It was perfectly lawful for the state to prosecute Alan Turing in 1952 (and Oscar Wilde in 1895) for homosexual acts. That the prosecutions were lawful (and were possible factors in their premature deaths) didn’t make the prosecutions right.

If NASA made its space missions conditional on a requirement that astronauts sign a contract that made them responsible for anything that went wrong, they would probably sign – because of their overwhelming desire to go into space. But if something went wrong would it be right for NASA to enforce the contact (assuming the astronauts survived?).

It can be lawful to enforce a contract but wrong to do so.

Post Office happy?

The Post Office (which is still publicly owned) sounds relaxed about going to court. The FT quoted the Post Office as saying,

“We welcome [the group litigation order] as offering the best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved.

“We will be continuing to address the allegations through the court’s processes and will not otherwise comment on litigation whilst it is ongoing.”

Even at this late stage, it’s not too late for the Post Office’s directors to ponder on the matter of right and wrong rather than go ahead with a court case merely because they can.

They have the power to exacerbate the devastation for hundreds of families. They also have the power to withdraw from the court case, settle and reduce the risk of any further personal tragedies.

This is where the distinction between enforcing a legal right and doing the right thing couldn’t be clearer.

Post Office faces class action over “faulty” IT system – FT

Shedding new light on the Post Office Horizon IT controversy?