Category Archives: Post Office IT

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

 

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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

Are sub-postmasters generally happy with the Horizon system?

By Tony Collins

Since complaints of sub-postmasters about the Horizon branch accounting system were first published in 2009, the Post Office has said it is a reliable system used daily by thousands of people and complainants are few.

But, apart from the branch sub-postmasters who have made their concerns about Horizon known to the corporate Post Office, how many others are contented or dissatisfied with Horizon?

The BBC reported yesterday on a former sub-postmistress in Northern Ireland who said she sold her post office after problems with Horizon.

Fiona Elliott ran a  branch from 2004 to 2009. It was attached to a convenience store. She told the BBC,

“At the end of the night, it was telling me that I had maybe minus £80, minus £100 or maybe £120 down.”

She put £8,500 of her own money into the post office to balance the books.  “If the computer system had been balancing properly, I would not have had to put my own money into it.

“This left the shop side of the business struggling so we ended up selling the whole business.”

The Post Office told the BBC, “We have confidence in our network of 11,500 post office branches and the systems underpinning it.

“The Horizon computer system is operated successfully by thousands of employees, postmasters and their staff to process 47 million transactions every week.”

Another sub-postmaster’s Horizon response

Recently I asked a sub-postmaster about the Horizon system a few days before he and his wife sold their village post office.

The sub-postmaster knew me by sight as a regular customer. His post office had been on the market for several months. I spoke to him a few days before he passed it over to the new owners and asked why he was leaving. He did not look of retiring age. He said he did not like the hours and the opportunities to take short breaks were few and far between. He and his wife were going into a different line of work.

In a tone of voice that invited a positive response,  I asked what he thought of the Horizon system.  He was passionate in his criticism. He did not stop giving me his views about Horizon and its frequent updates (while shaking his head now and then) until another customer began queuing behind me.

Not a failure

Given that Horizon has been operating in thousands of post office branches for nearly 20 years and has coped with many major changes, the Post Office could say with authority that the Horizon system has not been a failure.

But is it generally reliable? And are sub-postmasters happy with it? In the absence of any published, authoritative and independent survey of sub-postmaster views, it is impossible to answer either question with any authority.

Ex sub-postmistress “wrongly had to repay 16k” – BBC

Postofficetrial

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

Horizon IT controversy closes another village post office and threatens the future of its owner

By Tony Collins              

It’s a familiar story.

A small businessman, this time in the village of Alveston, which is 10 miles north of Bristol, is being threatened with a life-changing debt because of a shortfall shown on the Post Office’s Horizon system.

The local post office has closed and its owner is being pursued for £41,000.

It’s happening against the backdrop of a High Court class action by 522 former owners of small post offices. The High Court has granted them a Group Litigation Order against the Post Office.

Many of the 522 have had to give the Post Office money they say they didn’t owe, because of deficits shown on Horizon. Some were jailed or made bankrupt. Many lost their livelihoods while being left with huge debts.

The Alveston case involved, initially, £36,000. The discrepancy came as a surprise to Hari Jayanthan, who ran the Alveston post office branch out of his shop.

The Gazette reported that the problems for Jayanthan began last December when the software he uses to balance the books showed a shortfall.

He asked the Post Office repeatedly for help but says he had no meaningful response and was left unsure what to do.

“I thought it had to be a mistake,” he said. “They said they would have a look and they kept saying they could not find anything.

“I was asking if I had done something wrong, pushed the wrong button or something, and if someone could come and help me, but nobody turned up for six months.”

In May 2017 officials from the Post Office arrived on his doorstep, telling him that they were now owed £41,000.

This was nearly three times what his village post office business made in a year.

“I keep getting letters and phone calls asking how I plan to repay them, and I don’t know what to do.

“This is the only business I have and I don’t have that kind of money to repay them. It’s all I have got. What can I do? We took no money from them and I could find no fault on my side.”

In a corporate move, the Post Office closed the Alveston branch in May, without notice to local villagers. It said the closure was for “operational reasons”.

Today, the Alveston post office and stores is shown on Google as  “permanently closed”.

Local parish councillors have expressed concern, particularly at the suddenness of the closure. For Alveston residents, the nearest post office is more than 1.5 miles away.

The Post Office said it does not comment on individual cases. It welcomes the High Court case as the “best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved”.

It added that it has confidence in the Horizon system which is “robust, reliable and used across 11,600 branches by postmasters, agents and their many thousands of staff, to process six million transactions successfully every day, including on behalf of the UK’s high street banks”.

High Court case

One of the most important parts of the preliminary hearings so far – perhaps the single most important exchange – has involved the Horizon system’s “known errors log”.  So far the log has remained confidential.

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which is behind the class action being handled by Freeths solicitors, has asked for disclosure of the log.

TV reporter Nick Wallis, who has covered the Horizon controversy for many years, in particular for BBC’s The One Show, went to the High Court last month and tweeted on some of the exchanges.

The judge Sir Peter Fraser, who has practiced in the Technology and Construction Court from 1990, asked the Post Office to list reasons why the known errors log should not be disclosed.

The Post Office’s legal representative said that the demand for the log was a red herring. The Post Office has no control over it. It is controlled by Fujitsu which built Horizon and maintains it.

The legal representative for the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance argued that the data in the log could be exported.

The judge said he wanted e-disclosure preliminaries to be sorted by 10 November. If there was still disagreement, a disclosure management hearing will be set up.

The judge also extended the cut-off date for new claims. Freeths is accepting new applications from any subpostmasters including assistants, managers, crown office employees and temporary subpostmasters until the end of 10 November 2017.

Another 70 or so are expected to join, bringing the total number of claimants to about 590.

Comment:

Nobody outside an inner circle of Post Office head office executives and their advisers believes that hundreds of owners of local post offices – who took pride in serving their local communities – decided to defraud the taxpayer.

It’s not even clear that the Post Office believes it. For it has not sought to establish that any of the subpostmasters involved in the High Court class action benefitted from a lavish lifestyle financed by (alleged) shortfalls shown on the Horizon system.

But still the Post Office’s corporate position against the subpostmasters seems immovable. Which raises the question of whether the Post Office is placing more importance on the integrity of a computer system than the integrity of hundreds of subpostmasters.

Forensic accountants Second Sight, whom the Post Office commissioned to investigate Horizon complaints, raised many concerns about the system. The Post Office terminated Second Sight’s contract.

Computer Weekly reports that Andy Clark, visiting professor in information security at Royal Holloway University of London and director at information security and expert witness company Primary Key Associates, was called as a witness for the defence in a case brought by the Post Office against a sub-postmaster.

After seeing the Post Office Horizon accounting system in action, he said it was quickly apparent there were questions to ask about its integrity. After asking the Post Office these questions, the Post Office dropped the case, he said.

Today the Post Office’s position in the class action is that subpostmasters have signed a contract that, in essence, made them responsible for shortfalls shown on the Horizon system.

But is it as simple as that?

Some of the questions that will be raised at next November’s High Court trial  include:

  • Did Post Office Limited owe to subpostmasters a duty of good faith, fair dealing, transparency, co-operation, trust and confidence?
  • Were legally binding terms implied in the contracts but not expressly stated? For example, what contractual obligations did Post Office Limited have in relation to investigating and determining the causes of alleged shortfalls.
  • Did contracts include unusual, onerous or unfair terms?
  • In what circumstances did subpostmasters have a liability to Post Office Limited for shortfalls and losses?
  • Did the contracts allow Post Office Limited to suspend or terminate in the manner in which they did.

Known errors

The Post Office refers repeatedly to the robustness of Horizon. It doesn’t accept that the system could have caused the losses in question.

This is one reason the known errors log is in contention. It could reveal that there were no known Horizon faults relevant to the shortfalls in question.

Or it could reveal the opposite.

What is extraordinary is that the log hasn’t been disclosed in years of legal cases against the subpostmasters.

This is a little like aircraft manufacturer Boeing implicating pilots in major incidents while not disclosing the plane’s fault history.

In the US, investigators have a statutory right to inspect the plane’s full fault history. Let us hope that the High Court requires Horizon’s full records to be produced.

One accused former subpostmistress Jo Hamilton has tweeted that “justice is coming”. We hope she’s right and that it comes long before the scheduled end of the High Court trials in March 2019.

For every day that passes without a settlement of the case is a day in which corporate hubris and irrationality prevails.

It’s to be expected that the Post Office’s directors will want to express confidence in a computer system on which their business depends.

But do they really believe it’s worth continuing to sacrifice small businesses and ruin the lives of their owners to repeatedly establish the integrity of a computer system?

Court dates set for trial – Computer Weekly

Nick Wallis High Court Horizon tweets

 

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?

Shedding new light on the Post Office Horizon controversy?

By Tony Collins

Dozens of families gathered in the ballroom of a Hilton hotel to hear independent investigators announce the most likely cause of an air crash that killed 132 air passengers.

Some wondered whether official investigations into air crashes always ended up protecting powerful corporate interests. For several years the manufacturer Boeing had denied that a technical malfunction was the cause of the crash. It blamed the pilots.

This was the longest inquiry in the history of the National Transportation Safety Board, an investigative organisation funded by the US government. Congress has mandated the Board’s independence and objectivity.

At first, each Boeing 737 incident was treated as a single unique event.  In the absence of any clear evidence of a technical malfunction, suspicion fell on the pilots.

The 737 is, after all, the best-selling commercial jet airliner in history. It has an extraordinary safety record.

Then evidence began to mount that various 737 incidents might have been linked.

After thousands of tests over several years, air crash investigators made a discovery – that a particular technical malfunction could, after all, have caused the incidents.

It was an intermittent malfunction – and one that occurred in a rare set of circumstances. It left no trace. It might have caused a succession of seemingly-unique major incidents.

Now the final verdict on the likely cause of USAir Flight 427’s destruction was imminent. As families sat in silence at the Hilton Hotel, Springfield, Virginia, five board members of the National Transportation Safety Board voted – in public – on whether they accepted the findings of their staff investigators who’d pointed to the likely cause being a technical malfunction, not the pilots.

The vote was unanimous; and some relatives wept.  The probable cause was not the pilots. It was “most likely” to have been a technical malfunction.

Boeing accepted the final report into the crash of Flight 427. “We respect the Board’s opinion,” said Boeing after the vote. It made rudder-related design changes that eventually cost more than $100m.

Human or machine?

What do various incidents involving Boeing 737s have to do with a campaign for justice for 198 former sub-postmasters and their families?

At issue in both cases is whether human or machine was to blame for a plethora of incidents.

Former sub-postmasters, who used to run local post offices across the UK, say that technical malfunction, or a combination of human error and unusual, unexpected equipment behaviour, was the cause of their distress, misfortune, jailing or bankruptcy.

The Post Office blamed them for losses shown on its “Horizon” system and required that they pay the shortfall in question. This led to financial ruin for some of them. The Post Office insisted its equipment was not at fault. It pointed to the lack of evidence of any technical malfunction.

But investigations into rare crashes of 737s show that it’s possible for a major corporation to be mistaken when it clears its own equipment and blames the equipment’s human operators.

The 737 investigations found that “no evidence of a technical malfunction” did not necessarily mean “no technical malfunction”.

The UK government reached a similar conclusion at the end of a campaign by families to set aside an RAF finding of gross negligence against two pilots, Flight Lieutenants Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook, who died when a Chinook helicopter, ZD576, crashed on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994.

For 16 years the RAF and Ministry of Defence insisted that there was no evidence of a relevant technical malfunction on the last flight of Chinook ZD576. They blamed the pilots for the crash. But leaked MoD technical papers established that the Chinook’s engine computer systems could fail in unpredictable ways – sometimes intermittently – and leave no evidence.

In the end – after a 17-year campaign for justice by the pilots’ families – the UK government set aside the RAF’s finding against Tapper and Cook, mainly because of doubts over whether the pilots or technical malfunction, or a combination of both, caused the crash.

Arguably, the Chinook and 737 controversies established the principle that, despite the absence of firm evidence of a technical malfunction, a major incident could still be caused by one, or a series of them.

This may be an important consideration in Post Office cases because, in some criminal trials of sub-postmasters, the absence of evidence of a technical malfunction that caused the losses shown on Horizon has counted against the defendants.

It counted against former sub-postmaster Lee Castleton who disputed in a civil action the Post Office’s claim that he owed amounts totalling £27,000. These sums were shown on Horizon as losses.

The judge in the case said, “It is inescapable that the Horizon system was working properly in all material respects.” Castleton lost the case and was left with costs of £321,000. The following year he filed for bankruptcy.

In a separate case, a criminal hearing where former sub-postmaster Seema Misra was the defendant, a jury agreed with the Post Office’s case that the Horizon system was tried and tested, had been in use at thousands of Post Offices for several years, and was fundamentally reliable and robust.

Misra was jailed for the theft of £75,000 in a case based on the Post Office’s computer evidence. She said she hadn’t taken a penny.

When sub-postmasters could not prove the existence of a fault on Horizon that explained the losses, the conclusion was that they were personally responsible for the shortfall.

About 30 of the 198 individual complaints against Horizon are from former sub-postmasters who received criminal convictions over the losses.

Boeing and the Post Office

With its turnover of about $94bn [£76bn), Boeing is nearly ten times the size of the Post Office. The Post Office has a turnover of less than £1bn. Boeing has vast facilities and specialist teams to investigate crashes full-time. Still, its judgments on the probable cause or causes of major incidents are not infallible.

A number of 737 incidents have shown that, even with relevant incident data available, it may take years of assiduous and expensive independent investigations to get to the likely truth.

In the case of the 737 incidents, the suspect component at the centre of investigations, a power control unit, was based on an old design (certified in the 1960s) – and straightforward in its operation relative to the Horizon system.

In comparison, the Horizon system has hundreds of thousands of lines of code and is complex, taking into account its many upgrades over more than a decade and its interactions with different hardware, networks, interfaces and a central data centre. Adding to this complexity are user uncertainties over procedures for dealing with problems.

But one of the most striking single aspects of any comparison between 737 crashes and the Horizon controversy is that it took professional full-time independent investigators in the US several years and thousands of tests on one suspect component only, before they were able to establish not that the component in question had been the cause of two fatal crashes and a succession of other incidents but that it had been the “probable” cause.

More than $1m was spent investigating the power control unit and still there was no firm evidence that the suspect component was the cause.

The Post Office has, arguably, required a higher standard of proof from local sub-postmasters.

By insisting that there was no evidence of a malfunction that resulted in losses, the Post Office put the onus on sub-postmasters to prove otherwise. Establishing that Horizon was the “probable” or “likely” cause – the standard of proof required in commercial aircraft accidents – was not good enough in cases of sub-postmaster complaints.

In response to the complaints of former sub-postmasters, the Post Office has made a number of similar statements:

“There is no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing at these Post Office branches. There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money.”

Another Post Office statement said,

“To date, and after two and half years of investigation and independent review, the facts are that Post Office has found no evidence, nor has any been advanced by either an Applicant [former sub-postmaster] or Second Sight [the independent investigators of sub-postmaster complaints], which suggests that Horizon does not accurately record and store branch transaction data or that it is not working as it should.”

Boeing made similar points in its submission to the National Transportation Safety Board on the crash of Flight 427. Boeing pointed to a lack of evidence of technical malfunction while pointing to evidence of the actions of human operators (pilots).

Boeing said,

“There is no evidence to support a conclusion that an uncommanded full rudder deflection occurred (the rudder moving in the opposite direction to that commanded by the pilots).

“While there is not conclusive evidence of a crew-commanded, sustained left-rudder input, such a possibility is plausible and must be seriously considered, especially given the lack of evidence of an airplane-induced rudder deflection.”

Indeed Boeing’s conclusion in its submission to investigators of 737 incidents was similar to the Post Office’s position that there was “no systemic problem” with Horizon.

Boeing said,

“There is no data to indicate that the Eastwind Flight 517 event, the United Flight 585 accident, and USAir Flight 427 accident were caused by a common airplane malfunction.” [Boeing had argued that each incident was different – a similar argument to the Post Office which said each complaint by sub-postmasters  about the Horizon system was “demonstrably different and influenced by its own particular facts”.]

In a separate submission to the National Transportation Safety Board, the manufacturer of the 737’s suspect power control unit, Parker Hannifin, made a point similar to Boeing’s.

“In sum, after years of one of the most critical examinations in aviation history, there is no evidence that the main rudder PCU [power control unit] from Flight 427 malfunctioned or was other than fully operational.”

Last word

But the National Transportation Safety Board, as a statutory authority, had the last word.

Its conclusion did not coincide with the view of Boeing or Parker Hannifin.

It said the most likely cause of the crash of Flight 427 was that the rudder moved in the opposite direction to that commanded by the flight crew. The final investigation report said,

“Probable Cause

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of the USAir flight 427 accident was a loss of control of the airplane resulting from the movement of the rudder surface to its blowdown limit [full aerodynamic limit].

“The rudder surface most likely deflected in a direction opposite to that commanded by the pilots as a result of a jam of the main rudder power control unit servo valve secondary slide to the servo valve housing offset from its neutral position and over-travel of the primary slide.”

Could both sides be right?

On the face of it, the Post Office and former sub-postmasters have contradictory arguments, just as Boeing’s assertions and the investigators’ finding of likely technical malfunction may seem contradictory.

It’s possible, though, that these arguments are not as contradictory as they seem.

It is conceivable the Post Office was correct when it said there was no conclusive evidence of a technical malfunction; and it’s equally conceivable the former sub-postmasters were correct when they said a technical malfunction was partly or entirely to blame for the losses.

Possible similarities and differences

Campaign4Change has looked closely at some of the similarities and differences between 737 rudder incidents and the Post Office cases.

The Post Office and Boeing investigated each incident as a separate matter. Both organisations found no systemic problems. But, unlike Boeing, the Post Office always had the upper hand in its investigations: it was able to require that sub-postmasters pay, in many cases, tens of thousands of pounds that were shown as losses on Horizon.

There’s a risk of trivialising the consequences of 737 crashes when making comparisons with the Horizon controversy. It can be argued, though, that both involved major incidents that ruined lives; and both cases raise the question of whether any large corporation, once it has taken a position that its equipment was not to blame for a single major incident – let alone a number of incidents – will ever change its mind unless forced to.

One particular difference between the UK and US investigations into major incidents is that the US regulatory system allows Boeing to make a submission to the investigations board – which it did, contesting the board’s draft finding that blamed technical malfunction for 737 incidents and crashes – but Boeing had to abide by the independent board’s final decision.

The Post Office did not have to abide by the findings of its independent investigators Second Sight and was able to end Second Sight’s contract. The Post Office said it had given Second Sight “notice regarding its contract“.

Another difference: in the US, the regulatory system allowed the National Transportation Safety Board to require information from the various equipment manufacturers; and the Board’s investigators could obtain information independently of the manufacturers, usually with their cooperation but not necessarily.

In comparison, the Post Office determined what information it passed to Second Sight and the families. On this point Second Sight had its concerns.

In one of its reports for the Post Office, Second Sight said,

“We have experienced significant difficulty in obtaining access to a number of documents we believe are necessary for the purposes of our investigation, notwithstanding Post Office’s commitment to make requested documents available to us.”

The Post Office says it made available to Second Sight thousands of documents but not those that were the subject of legal privilege .

There’s a further difference between the US and UK investigations. In the US, the National Transportation Safety Board did its own investigations or supervised those carried out by equipment manufacturers. It even had the power to exclude equipment owners from participating in the inquiry.

In 2010 American Airlines was excluded from participating in an investigation into an incident involving one of its 757 aircraft because its technicians downloaded and accessed information from the plane’s black box [digital flight data recorder] before it was examined by independent investigators.

US regulations require that the National Transportation Safety Board is the first to see, download or access information from the black boxes.

A Board press release criticised American Airlines. It said,

“Although a thorough examination by our investigators determined that no information from the DFDR [digital flight data recorder] was missing or altered in any way, the breach of protocol by American Airlines personnel violates the Safety Board’s standards of conduct for any organization granted party status in an NTSB investigation.

“Because maintaining and enforcing strict investigative protocols and procedures is vital to the integrity of our investigative processes, we have revoked the party status of American Airlines and excused them from further participation in this incident investigation.”

When the Post Office investigated Horizon systems in the light of losses shown on the systems, it had the authority to retain full control of system information throughout.

As well as being the owner of the system, the Post Office was responsible for commissioning the investigations into the actions of the sub-postmasters. It was also the prosecuting authority and supplier of the material facts involved.

Other possible considerations

  1. In the US, there was no procedure for pilots to follow if they had a rudder hardover (where the rudder moves to its fullest extent and jams against a mechanical stop). The principle was that pilots were not trained to cope with problems that theoretically couldn’t occur. Were sub-postmasters faced with malfunctions that were considered impossible and so hadn’t been trained to cope with them?
  2. Human operators may make the ultimate mistake but they might have been reacting to malfunctions, problems with design, inaccurate information or confusing interfaces. [The Post Office had 1.5 million Horizon helpline calls in a three-year period which is a possible sign that many local post office staff did not fully understand the system or how it worked.]
  3. The US pilots’ trade union ALPA [Airline Pilots Association] was formed partly because of a perception that the government’s automatic response to major incidents was to blame pilots.
  4. After major incidents, the Post Office and Boeing have pointed to the extraordinary record of reliability of their equipment, the implication being that a systemic problem is highly unlikely. The 737 had (and still has) an extraordinary safety record: 264 million flight hours and an uncommonly low crash rate. Airlines have ordered at least 11,550 of them, more than any other commercial aircraft in history. It’s in use in 111 countries. Its reliability record is the best in the world. On average more than 2,000 737s are in the air at any one time. It has carried 17 billion passengers – about twice the world’s total population. It has flown about 120 billion miles, the equivalent of 640 round trips from the earth to the sun. The Post Office says of Horizon: “Horizon is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.   There have been 500,000 users of the system since it was introduced.”
  5. The design of the 737 rudder system had been considered fail-safe. It was thought it would work properly even when problems occurred. The system had built-in “redundancy”. Every lever inside the lower power control unit had a second lever that moved in concert, in case one should break. There were two hydraulic systems in case one should fail. There was a standby actuator in case the main power control unit stopped working. Even so, after thousands of tests, investigators found it could fail in very rare circumstances.
  6. The Post Office has listed the many procedures and processes in place for subpostmasters to handle problems or technical failures. The Post Office said, “Horizon is capable of handling power and telecommunications problems. In Post Office branches, postmasters are responsible for power supplies and the cabled telecommunications lines. Interruptions in power supplies and telecommunication lines are a risk faced by all IT systems. There are, however, recovery systems built into Horizon to prevent losses occurring where there is a power or telecommunication failure. There is no evidence to suggest that either of these events would cause losses in branches where the recovery process has been correctly followed by branch staff. There is however evidence of branch staff failing to follow the recovery process properly. This would cause discrepancies in a branch accounts and could be a cause of losses. It is however the result of human error by Applicants [former sub-postmasters] or their staff, and not a failing of the Post Office or Horizon.”
  7. US air crash investigators were able to glean much from listening to voices in the cockpit shortly before incidents occurred. No such luxury existed in the investigation of Post Office Horizon losses. The Post Office cannot have known what was in the minds of the sub-postmasters at the time: whether they had criminal intent or were utterly baffled by what was appearing on their screens.
  8. The National Transportation Safety Board after its initial investigation into the fatal crash of United Airlines 585 at Colorado Springs in 1991, reached a conclusion that the probable cause was “undetermined reasons”. Would the Post Office consider such a possibility in the case of Horizon losses?
  9. After the unexplained crash of Flight 585, the National Transportation Safety Board kept tabs on 737 rudder problems even without evidence they were the likely cause of any serious incidents. Does this mark a different investigative approach to the Post Office which appears to have had a mindset that its equipment could not be to blame for losses?
  10. The fact that five leading members of the National Transportation Safety Board voted publicly on the probable cause, or causes, of a major incident limited the potential for an institutional mindset to develop. The Board often modified or rejected the findings of its investigators.
  11. Tests could not be carried out on 737 equipment until all parties agreed on how each piece would be tested. Agreement involved the Federal Aviation Authority as regulator, Boeing, the pilots’ union ALPA and the machinists’ union. In contrast the Post Office was in complete control of its investigations into Horizon losses.
  12. The existence of the National Transportation Safety Board is a check against parties protecting their own corporate interests, namely the reputation of their equipment, after a major incident. What similar check exists to prevent the Post Office from seeking to protect its corporate interests – namely the reputation of its equipment – after a number of major incidents?
  13. Would the conclusions of the investigations into the 737 incidents have been different if Boeing had been the authority in charge of the final report?

A useful book on the crash of Flight 427 is by Bill Adair, which is an inside account of the 737 rudder incidents. He had access to all the main parties involved.

Also useful is the final report of the National Transportation Safety Board into the crash of Flight 427. It contains Boeing’s submission.

In January 2017, the High Court granted Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, which represents the accused former sub-postmasters, a Group Litigation Order against the Post Office.  There are 198 sub-postmasters on the High Court claim form and several hundred more are likely to join as claimants.

If the case goes to appeal, it could continue for years.

Or the Post Office could choose to settle rather than spend public money fighting a case which could be seen as a self-vindicating exercise – one that prolongs the misery for the subpostmasters and their families.

Campaign4change emailed the Post Office a list of detailed questions, based on this article. A Post Office spokeswoman replied that, “given that there is currently litigation it’s not appropriate for Post Office to comment”.

Last year, after a BBC Panorama documentary on the complaints of sub-postmasters and the Horizon system, the Post Office issued the following statement:

BBC Panorama – Our response

The Post Office wholly rejects extremely serious allegations repeated in BBC’s Panorama programme of 17 August 2015. The allegations are based on partial, selective and misleading information.

  • The Post Office does not prosecute people for making innocent mistakes and never has   
  • There is no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing at these Post Office branches 
  • There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money

We are sorry if a small number of people feel they have not been treated fairly in the past but we have gone to enormous lengths to re-investigate their cases, doing everything and more than we committed to do.

All of the allegations presented in the programme have been exhaustively investigated and tested by the Post Office and various specialists over the past three years or more.   The unsubstantiated claims and theories that continue to be levelled against the Post Office are at odds with the facts and are constructed from highly partial, selective and inaccurate information.

This is about individual cases and the Post Office will not discuss those in public for very good reason.  The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing a small number of cases involving criminal convictions. It will be provided with all available information including confidential legal material not available to others and we believe the CCRC should be allowed to complete its reviews without external comment.  We also gave a commitment of confidentiality to people who put forward cases to us for re-investigation.

The Horizon computer system is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.

Background facts

Prosecutions

The Post Office has always taken its duty to act fairly, proportionately and with the public interest in mind extremely seriously.  The Prosecutions it brings are scrutinised by defence lawyers before they advise their clients and are, ultimately, ruled upon by the courts.

If money is missing from a Post Office branch and the fact that cash is missing has been dishonestly disguised by falsifying figures in the branch accounts, the Post Office is entitled to take action and does so based on the facts and circumstances of that specific case. Though rare, where there is evidence of criminal conduct, a decision may be made to prosecute.

Prosecutions are brought to determine whether there was criminal conduct in a branch, not for the Post Office’s financial considerations.

Post Office prosecutors are all experienced criminal lawyers, many of whom have significant experience in prosecuting for both Post Office and the Crown Prosecution Service.   In the rare instances that prosecutions are undertaken, the Post Office follows the Code for Crown Prosecutors (the same code as the Crown Prosecution Service).  The Code requires a prosecution to have sufficient evidence and be in the public interest, both of which are kept under review right up to and including any trial.   It means there must be sufficient evidence for each charge – if a theft charge is brought, there must be sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of a conviction for theft.

A charge upon which there is no evidence will inevitably fail. It is the duty of the defence lawyers to identify to the court where there is insufficient evidence to sustain a charge.  If the court agrees then the Judge must dismiss that charge.

The Post Office takes extremely seriously any allegation that there may have been a miscarriage of justice. We have seen no evidence to support this allegation.   The Post Office has a continuing duty after a prosecution has concluded to disclose any information that subsequently comes to light which might undermine its prosecution  or support the case of the defendant and continues to act in compliance with that duty.

The Horizon Computer System

Horizon is robust and effective in dealing with the six million transactions put through the system every day by our postmasters and employees at 11,500 Post Office branches. It is independently audited and meets or exceeds industry accreditations.   There have been 500,000 users of the system since it was introduced.

Nevertheless, rigorous re-investigations were undertaken into claims made by 136 mainly former postmasters that the system caused losses in their branches.

There is overwhelming evidence that the losses complained of were caused by user actions, including in some cases deliberate dishonest conduct. The investigations have not identified any transaction caused by a technical fault in Horizon which resulted in a postmaster wrongly being held responsible for a loss of money.

There is also no evidence of transactions recorded by branches being altered through ‘remote access’ to the system.  Transactions as they are recorded by branches cannot be edited and the Panorama programme did not show anything that contradicts this.

Resolution of cases

The Post Office was approached in 2012 by a small number of largely former Postmasters and MPs with the concern that faults in the Horizon computer system had caused losses at their Post Office branches.

In response the Post Office set up an independent inquiry and, when that found nothing wrong with the system, established a scheme to enable people to put forward individual complaints, providing financial support to those making claims so that they could obtain independent professional advice.

There were 150 cases put forward, 43 of which involved criminal convictions.

A number of the cases are now resolved, through mediation or otherwise, and the remainder of cases where the courts have not previously ruled have been put forward for mediation.

Mediation is overseen by the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution (CEDR), an established leading and entirely independent organisation.   Those who have been offered mediation can still exercise their available rights if mediation is not successful – mediation itself doesn’t stop that.

Mediation cannot overturn a previous court ruling – only the courts can do so.

Campaign4Change’s questions to the Post Office

Based on this article, Campaign4Change put some questions to the Post Office:

  1. If an organisation the size of Boeing can be mistaken when it clears its own equipment and blames the human operators (pilots), it is possible that the Post Office was mistaken when it cleared its own equipment and blamed the sub-postmasters? [Boeing, which is much bigger than the Post Office, has vast test facilities and matching resources for investigations.]
  2. One outcome of the US investigations was that “no firm evidence of a technical malfunction” did not necessarily mean there was no technical malfunction. The 737 rudder system malfunction was found eventually to have been intermittent. It left no trace. [We know from the crash of a Chinook helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994 that it’s possible for computer systems to fail to work properly – sometimes with an intermittent fault – and leave no trace.) Does the Post Office accept that mechanical or digital equipment can suffer from an intermittent fault that leaves no trace?
  3. Any comment please on the point that “no evidence of a technical malfunction” does not necessarily mean “no technical malfunction”?
  4. Any comment please on the point that large corporations, once they have cleared their equipment from blame after a single major incident – or further similar incidents – are unlikely ever to change their minds unless forced to?
  5. One of the most striking single aspects of any comparison between 737 crashes and the Horizon controversy is that it took professional full-time independent investigators in the US several years, millions of dollars and thousands of tests on one suspect component only, before they were able to establish not that the component in question had been the cause of two fatal crashes and a succession of other incidents but that it was the “probable” cause. There was no evidence that the suspect component was the cause. Has the Post Office required a higher standard of proof from sub-postmasters by requiring “evidence” to suggest that a Horizon malfunction or malfunctions caused the incidents in question?
  6. Boeing had to abide by the findings of the National Transportation Safety Board even though the Board did not agree with Boeing’s conclusions. The Post Office did not have to abide by the findings of its independent investigators Second Sight and was able to end Second Sight’s contract. Any comment please?
  7. In the US, the regulatory system allowed the National Transportation to require information from the various equipment manufacturers; and it could obtain information independently of the manufacturers, usually with their cooperation but not necessarily.   In comparison, the Post Office determined what information it passed to Second Sight and the families. On this point Second Sight had its concerns. In one of its reports for the Post Office, Second Sight said, “We have experienced significant difficulty in obtaining access to a number of documents we believe are necessary for the purposes of our investigation, notwithstanding Post Office’s commitment to make requested documents available to us.” Any comment please?
  8. The National Transportation Safety Board had the power (which it exercised) to exclude organisations that owned the equipment in question from participating in the inquiry. When the Post Office investigated Horizon systems in the light of losses shown on the systems, the Post Office, although owner and operator of the equipment in question, had the authority to retain full control of system information throughout.  Any comment please?
  9. The design of the 737 rudder system had been considered fail-safe and was certified on this basis. It had built-in “redundancy”. Even so, after thousands of tests, investigators found it could fail in very rare circumstances. The Post Office has explained at some length its Horizon failure back-up processes and procedures. Nevertheless could these prove fallible in very rare circumstances, in ways not yet fully understood?
  10. Boeing said it was open to any theory even if it meant Boeing was at fault. Is this the Post Office’s position?
  11. After the crash of United Airlines Flight 585 at Colorado Springs in 1991, the National Transportation Safety Board kept tabs on 737 rudder problems even without evidence they were the likely cause of any serious incidents.  Does this mark a different investigative approach to the Post Office which appears to have had a mindset that its equipment could not be to blame for losses?
  12. The NTSB after its initial investigation into the fatal crash of United Airlines 585 reached a conclusion that the probable cause was “undetermined reasons”. Would the Post Office consider such a possibility in the case of Horizon losses?
  13. Tests could not be carried out on 737 equipment until all parties agreed on how each piece would be tested. Agreement involved the Federal Aviation Authority as regulator, Boeing, the pilots’ union ALPA and the machinists’ union. In contrast the Post Office was in complete control of its investigations into Horizon losses.  Any comment please?
  14. The existence of the National Transportation Safety Board is a check against parties protecting their own corporate interests, namely the reputation of their equipment, after a major incident. What similar check exists to prevent the Post Office from seeking to protect its corporate interests – namely the reputation of its equipment – after a number of major incidents?

The Post Office’s reply (as mentioned earlier) was that “given that there is currently litigation it’s not appropriate for Post Office to comment”.

Postmasters tell their story – Computer Weekly investigation in 2009

Sub-postmasters and Horizon – timeline of events, 2009 to 2016 – Computer Weekly