Category Archives: Post Office IT

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

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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

Another village post office closed over Horizon IT controversy?

By Tony Collins

“I really have to apologise for not being able to offer the Post Office service the village deserves.

“The worst thing is that I cannot get a full response from the Post Office for their suspension of the service.”

These are the words of Neil Johnson, owner of the village Post Office located inside the Mace convenience store, High Street, Boosbeck, near Skelton, North Yorkshire.

The local Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop says on his website that the reasons for the closure of the Boosbeck post office are unclear but are “connected to a long running and national issue with the computer system and software used by the Post Office called Horizon”.

The closure leaves the village without a post office.

Dozens of subpostmasters have been forced to quit their local post offices over Post Office allegations that they acted criminally following losses shown on the Horizon system.

The Post Office has made no allegations against Neil Johnson.

The Post Office has required more than 150 subpostmasters to repay losses of thousands of pounds and, in some cases, tens of thousands of pounds – money they say was not a genuine loss but an accounting discrepancy shown on the computer system.

Many of the 150 were made bankrupt, jailed, or had their lives ruined because of what they say are unexplained faults related to the Horizon system.

No evidence has yet emerged that the subpostmasters in question received any of the money they are alleged to have taken. In some cases village communities have pulled together to raise money for the Post Office to be paid the “losses”.

Blenkinsop said of the temporary closure of the Boosbeck Post Office,

It just isn’t good enough and leads to an honest shopkeeper being possibly branded with an unfair image or tarnished by rumours…

“I did write on Mr Johnson’s behalf to the Post Office’s parliamentary liaison office, but all I have had back so far is the standard response that this is ‘being looked at’, and advice as to where the nearest other offices are – which I know anyway!”

Interviewed by The Northern Echo, a Post Office spokeswoman did not elaborate on the reason for the temporary closure. She apologised for any inconvenience caused to local residents.

“We would like to reassure customers that we will restore the service to the community as soon as possible and are committed to maintaining services in the area.

“In the meantime, customers can access Post Office services at Lingdale, North Skelton or Skelton in Cleveland.”

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance is taking a group legal action against the Post Office on behalf of the subpostmasters who say their lives have been affected by losses shown on the Horizon system.

An initial High Court hearing is expected to take place in January 2017.

One of the campaigners for justice is Tim McCormack, who worked in IT and later became a subpostmaster.

Although he did not personally have experience of unexplained losses, he believes strongly that problems with Horizon could explain the complaints of the accused subpostmasters.

He has written a fascinating analysis of the Seema Misra crown court case.

Suicide threat?

A subpostmaster has – unsuccessfully – made an anonymous FOI request to the Post Office for its Horizon “known errors” log.

The subpostmaster wrote,

“I am a subpostmaster with a big problem.  Over the last few months my branch has run up a huge loss and I am at my wits end trying to find out what has happened.

“I have contacted the NBSC [Post Office’s Network Business Support Centre] when it first started but they said I had to pay the money back but now it is too much and I just don’t have that sort of money.

“I have been looking on the internet for help and I see that there might be problems with Horizon that could have caused it.

“On this site someone has asked for something called the known errors report but you haven’t let them see it. Please could you tell me what these known errors are so I can try and track down what has caused this loss as I haven’t taken any money.

“I can’t report this to you because I read about Seema Misra and how she ended up in prison even though she said she didn’t take any money.

“Please please please let me see the errors so I can find what went wrong… I don’t want to go to prison I would rather kill myself first.

“Thank you to this site for letting me do this anonymously.”

The Post Office’s Gagan Sharma of the Information Rights team replied,

“Firstly, before I turn to your request under the FOIA, I would like to respond to the personal issues raised in your email. I am naturally especially concerned by the final line of your email and urge you to seek professional help via your Doctor or an organisation such as the Samaritans…

“One of the Post Office senior colleagues, Angela Van-Den-Bogerd would be keen to speak with you in complete confidence and anonymously to see whether we can help in any way…” [Gagan Sharma supplied a phone number.]

On the matter of the losses, the reply said,

“Regrettably, there has been some very misleading and inaccurate information about the Horizon computer system reported in the media. It’s important that you please contact the NBSC [Network Business Support Centre] again and ask for your report to be escalated to a Team Leader so that they can look into your concerns.

“The information that you have requested under the FOIA cannot be provided to you for the reasons I set out below …”

The letter confirmed that the “Post Office does hold information related to your request. However we believe that the information is exempt from disclosure”. The letter said disclosure was likely to prejudice commercial interests.

“… software updates for the Horizon system are released on a regular basis to ensure that operational performance is maintained at optimal levels… such updates include, for example, upgrades and improvements to functionality; and the introduction of new business capabilities for products and services and are, therefore, considered to be commercially sensitive…”

But subpostmasters have pointed out that it’s difficult for them to support their claim that the Horizon system was at least partly to blame for apparent losses if they cannot see the known errors log.

Comment

As has always been the case, the Post Office owns the system; it has a contractual right to claim from subpostmasters any losses shown on the system; it is the prosecuting authority when it believes that subpostmasters have taken the money shown as losses on the system;  it is the investigating authority and it can decide what information to divulge.

What chance do subpostmasters stand – even if innocent – in the face of such overwhelming power?

And how much fun is it to run a village post office when the Post Office could close it suddenly and inexplicably and, in doing so, strike fear into the heart of the local subpostmaster?

Thank you to Tim McCormack for his work and help in relation to the Horizon system. 

Post Office email reveals known Horizon flaw

The Post Office Horizon system and Seema Misra trial

Tom Blenkinsop MP battles for village Post Office

Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice

 

 

Post Office prosecutions plummet

By Tony Collins

post officeThe number of Post Office prosecutions of postmasters has fallen sharply in recent years, from dozens a year to single figures, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Post Office has prosecuted subpostmasters in the past because of false accounting or theft after the Post Office’s Horizon IT system showed discrepancies in the accounts.

The law allows the Post Office to act as investigating authority – and prosecuting authority – when it suspects losses shown on the Horizon system are due to dishonesty by subpostmasters who run local post offices.

Some sub-postmasters have been jailed and some have been made bankrupt or ruined financially after the Post Office required that they repay losses shown on Horizon.

More than 150 subpostmasters are in the midst of a collective legal action against the Post Office. The action is being coordinated by the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance. The Post Office is fighting it.

Subpostmasters say the losses were the result of faults in the Horizon or associated equipment and communications, which the Post Office denies. Subpostmasters say that evidence of discrepancies is not the same as evidence of theft.

These are the figures for Post Office prosecutions in the past six years:

post-office-prosecutions

The Post Office also gave figures for the number of postmasters suspended:

subpostmasters-suspended

Comment

In its Freedom of Information response the Post Office gave no reason for the plummeting number of prosecutions.

One possible factor is that the Post Office might have re-examined its approach to prosecutions. In 2013 forensic accountants Second Sight began reporting on complaints by about 150 subpostmasters that they were being incorrectly prosecuted or asked to repay money they did not owe.

In 2014 the BBC reported on the contents on of a leaked Second Sight report  that said Post Office investigators did not look for the root cause of the errors – and instead accused the sub-postmasters of theft or false accounting.

The Post Office has issued a point-by-point rebuttal of Second Sight’s reports.

In a separate blog post, I have suggested that the Post Office settle the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance’s legal action – which would mean compensating the individuals and families involved – to avoid protracted legal proceedings causing more suffering.

Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

Second Sight’s report

 

Post Office Horizon IT – for Julian Wilson time ran out on justice

By Tony Collins

Julian Wilson was a subpostmaster, one of the founding members of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance.

He and his wife Karen had their lives turned upside down after the Post Office’s centrally-run Horizon system, which was installed at the local branch they ran, showed unexplained losses.

He was one of more than 150 subpostmasters across the country whom the Post Office has blamed for losses shown on Horizon.

Subpostmasters run smaller post offices under a contract issued by the Post Office. Under their contracts, subpostmasters are personally responsible for deficits at their branches.

MPs and TV documentaries have raised concerns about whether the Post Office has accused subpostmasters of criminal actions when technical faults might have caused the losses.

The concerns of MPs were reinforced by the findings of forensic accountants Second Sight. At the request of MPs, the Post Office brought in Second Sight to investigate each of the subpostmaster complaints.

The Post Office criticised Second Sight’s findings and said there was no evidence that faults with the computer system caused money to go missing. “There is evidence that user actions, including dishonest conduct, were responsible for missing money,” said the Post Office.

Julian Wilson

TV investigative reporter Nick Wallis, who has reported on the Post Office Horizon IT system for the BBC’s The One Show, and has followed the story for many years, has written a moving post on the death of Julian Wilson who fought for justice for as long as he was able.

On his blog, Wallis says of Julian, “He was, I suppose, what we journalists call a contact.

“But his gentle manner, generous spirit and calm good humour made me think of him as more than that.”

Julian was prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting. He pleaded guilty and went to his grave a near-bankrupt convicted criminal, says Wallis.

When Julian died, his conviction was one of 20 subpostmaster cases being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

Technical fault or crime?

More than 11,000 post offices have used Fujitsu’s £1bn Horizon system for branch accounting and rarely have had problems. At the close of each day, the system has balanced money coming in from customers and money going out.

If the system showed a shortfall, subpostmasters had few options: make up the deficit out of their own money, sign off the accounts as correct, or refuse to sign off – which might have meant closing the post office (and upsetting customers) while a financial audit took place.

The Post Office prosecuted subpostmasters who signed off the accounts as correct knowing there were unexplained losses; and it prosecuted in some cases for theft.

Dozens of subpostmasters have been jailed, made bankrupt or had their lives ruined after the Post Office took action against them in the light of discrepancies shown on Horizon.

Tears

Julian Wilson was determined to clear his name.

Wallis interviewed him in December 2014 alongside his wife Karen in a village hall in Fenny Compton, where the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance met for the first time in 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

“What an absolute tragedy that such a good man should be taken from his beloved wife Karen and wonderful daughter Emma before his name had been cleared.”

Another said,

“RIP Julian – I am so sorry that we could not let you leave this world with the vindication you will certainly, but now posthumously, receive.”

Comment

Subpostmasters represented by Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance have issued a writ against the Post Office and the legal action is well and truly underway – but Julian Wilson’s untimely death shows that not all the individuals involved in complaints against the Post Office can afford the time to wait for justice.

In some cases, complaints go back at least eight years – so far.

The Post Office’s argument all along has been, in essence, that there is, and never has been, any evidence that Horizon caused the losses.

But neither is there evidence that more than 150 subpostmasters stole the money in question.

Institutional blindness?

In a BBC Panorama documentary on complaints about Horizon, Ian Henderson, a Second Sight investigator, told reporter John Sweeney,

“Horizon works reasonably well if not very well most of the time. In any large IT system it is inevitable that problems will occur.

“What seems to have gone wrong within the Post Office is a failure to investigate properly and in detail cases where those problems occurred. It’s almost like institutional blindness.”

The Post Office denies this and maintains that it has investigated each case thoroughly.

What strikes me, though, is the insularity of the Post Office’s case.

Crashes

Imagine if airlines and aircraft manufacturers were allowed to be the judge of whether pilots were to blame after major incidents.

The RAF’s hierarchy wrongly blamed two pilots for the crash of a Chinook helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994. It took 17 years for the families of the dead pilots to win justice for their dead sons.

It was only after numerous independent inquiries, Parliamentary hearings and leaks of a mass of material about problems with the helicopter’s computer systems that the RAF’s finding of gross negligence against the two pilots was quashed.

The case showed that, despite the sincerely-held beliefs of two air marshals that the pilots were, without any doubt, at fault, the RAF was eventually found to have failed to take sufficient account of the possibility of a technical malfunction, or a chain of events involving a technical malfunction.

The restoration of the pilots’ reputation came about not because the RAF’s hierarchy changed its mind about the pilots’ gross negligence, but because there was a change of government in 2010 and setting aside the finding against the pilots was the will of Parliament.

The then Coalition government decided that a technical cause of the crash could not be ruled out.

Of course there was no air crash in the case of the subpostmasters. But there was a similarity: the RAF and Post Office are State institutions that dismissed complaints about their equipment and blamed the system “users”, with devastating consequences for the reputations and lives of the families involved.

There is also a fundamental difference: a regulatory authority always undertakes investigations into air crashes.

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are not the legal investigating authority. In the UK it is the Air Accidents Investigation Branch. In its investigations into possible equipment failings, the AAIB has powers set out in law [including the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Air Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 1996] to require information from airlines and manufacturers.

In the case of the subpostmasters, the Post Office was the owner of the computer equipment that showed the losses; it was responsible for investigations into that equipment; and it was the prosecuting authority.

Contradictory evidence

There have been numerous commercial air crashes where regulatory investigating authorities have uncovered evidence that contradicted evidence from the airlines or manufacturers.

Sometimes it took regulatory authorities several years to discover the truth. Eventually they found technical faults where manufacturers had said initially there were none.

In the case of the Post Office Horizon controversy, there are no regulatory investigating authorities.

When accused subpostmasters have blamed the system for the losses, they have been unable to rely on an Air Accident Investigation Branch to produce a final report that could not be contested by the airline or manufacturers.

The Post Office could argue (rightly) that it operates under completely different laws, rules and regulations to the legal and regulatory framework that governs investigations of air crashes. In the Post Office cases, no public safety is involved.

But the Post Office has had a succession of serious incidents: the lives of 150 or more subpostmasters and in many cases their spouses have been thrown into turmoil.

Is this not a succession of serious incidents in which none has been the subject of an inquiry backed by a regulatory authority?

It’s a credit to the tenacity of Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance that legal proceedings have been issued. But the wheels of justice turn slowly. With appeals, the case could drag on for years.

More uncertainty and suffering for the families involved?

It’s also obvious that the Post Office has deeper pockets than those of individual subpostmasters.

That’s one reason why, after serious air incidents, the independent investigating authorities have complete control over their inquiries. Air accident investigators recognise that lawyers for airlines and manufacturers may seek to defend their organisations after a serious incident.

Sometimes air accident investigators will conduct parts of their investigations without relying on evidence from the manufacturers.

In the case of the accusations against subpostmasters, what powerful independent organisation exists to challenge the evidence of the Post Office?

The Post Office was able to commission Second Sight and later to discontinue its contract. The Post Office was also able to issue a point-by-point denial of Second Sight’s findings.

Imagine an airline or aircraft manufacturers being able to order independent investigators to discontinue their inquiries after a succession of serious incidents?

The Post Office said in response to Second Sight’s reports that it was “unable to endorse” the findings. After serious air incidents it would not matter if the airline or manufacturers disputed the report of regulatory authorities. The regulator’s report would stand.

Fairness?

The Post Office has a duty to prosecute subpostmasters who steal. But could it also do more to recognise that the imbalance of power and resources puts subpostmasters who have gained nothing – and lost much as a result of losses shown the system – at a severe disadvantage?

As the prosecuting authority, and the investigating authority, the Post Office is not open to serious challenge except through the courts where it has the money and resources to sustain costly and protracted battles.

Is this fair? Is this just?

The Post Office has every legal right to carry on exactly as it is, but could it not instead consider the cases on the basis of “benefit of doubt?”

In other words concede that there is doubt over whether subpostmasters had criminal intent?

Taking into account ordinary fairness and magnanimity in the face of its extraordinary power, the Post Office could settle the cases now, and not put the families of so many subpostmasters through any more suffering.

Nick Wallis’ post on Julian Wilson

Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as subpostmasters fund class action

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” Post Office IT? What now?

Communication Workers Union warns subpostmasters of flaw in Post Office Horizon accounting system

Horizon not fit for purpose at some branches?

Labelled as criminals – Telegraph

Post Office closes amid Horizon broadband problems

By Tony Collins

A Post Office has closed – temporarily perhaps – because the postmistress is refusing to spend more of her own money balancing the books on the Horizon IT system.

The York Press has published an article on the concerns of Wendy Martin who runs a Post Office branch in Clifton, York.

A broadband connection from her branch to the Horizon system goes down regularly, which she says stops payments being processed centrally. This has left her business hundreds of pounds down at the end of the month and her covering the shortfall.

Under her contract with the Post Office – and all such contracts – subpostmasters are responsible for any losses shown on Horizon.

About 150 sub-postmasters have complained to the Post Office about shortfalls which they say were accounting discrepancies related to Horizon problems rather than theft or fraud.

The Post Office’s legal action following cash shortfalls has led to the ruin of  dozens of subpostmasters who have lost their livelihoods, been made bankrupt or gone to jail. There were criminal convictions in 43 cases.

Subpostmasters claim the Post Office failed to investigate irregularities properly before launching criminal proceedings.

Wendy Martin has closed her Post Office until the connectivity problem is corrected.

The self-employed postmistress, who has worked in various shops during an 18-year career, says she is concerned that the problem will increase and could leave her paying in more money each month until the shop goes bust.

She told The Press: “The public feel I’m doing them a dis-service because the shop is shut but I could be in a situation where I may end up in prison.

“It costs me £400 just to keep the shop closed and if I keep putting in the money I will go bust. I hope the Post Office takes this seriously and come out to sort this, but until they do I’ll have to stay shut.”

Since the York Press article was published on 29 August Wendy Martin says the Post Office told her it would be “out asap and will sort this out”. She says she “cannot afford to keep putting money in for lost transactions due to this”.

Some subpostmasters have set up a Facebook page to air some of their grievances.

The Post Office says it does not prosecute people for making innocent mistakes and never has. In response to a BBC Panorama documentary last month on Horizon and the complaints of subpostmasters, the Post Office said:

“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…

“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.”

Mediation latest

John Munton, a director of the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution, which is mediating in the disputes between the Post Office and subpostmasters, has written to the Post Office on the results of his review of the mediation so far.

Of the 20 cases that have gone through mediation, 8 have been resolved which is 40%.  Munton says this settlement rate is “somewhat lower than the average settlement rate that we see across all the mediations that CEDR conducts”.

In an average year its settlement rate “tends to range between 65% and 75% with a further 10% to 15% of cases resulting in some progression towards final resolution”.

Munton suggests there is a fundamental mismatch between the expectations of the subpostmasters and the object of mediation which is not to award compensation but to achieve an agreement between the parties.

Subpostmasters expect to enter into talks on compensation for their lost livelihoods and money they have paid to the Post Office to cover accounting shortfalls. The Post Office’s representatives make it clear they need credible evidence to justify the claims for compensation.

The mediation process has been more effective, says Munton, “where a continuing contractual relationship is still in place between subpostmasters and the Post Office, and where both parties would like it to continue.”

Comment

The Post Office, in mediation and its entire approach to the complaints of subpostmasters, is taking an empathetic but legalistic approach. To subpostmasters who say Horizon was responsible for losses, the Post Office’s lawyers say in essence: “Prove it.”

The subpostmasters can prove little or nothing, perhaps because Horizon is not owned or run by them. All the information subpostmasters possess is supplied and owned by the Post Office or its main supplier Fujitsu. The Post Office says there is no evidence that Horizon has caused the discrepancies complained of by the subpostmasters.

This is not like a train crash where there would be an independent statutory investigation, the findings of which would have a statutory authority. In these cases, the Post Office has chosen to commission an independent investigation from forensic accountants Second Sight. The findings have no statutory authority. The Post Office is entitled to reject Second Sight’s findings. And it has.

It is unclear whether all the facts in these cases have surfaced, whether the Post Office still possesses all the potentially relevant data from disputes that date back many years, or whether it has made any mistakes in its interpretations of the facts.

The Post Office will continue to benefit from a purely legalistic approach because subpostmasters may be able to prove that Horizon can go wrong but they will never prove that it did go wrong in their particular case.

Even when statutory investigations take place into public safety incidents, it may take years to find possible or likely causes. And that’s the point. There are only possible or likely causes. In fatal air crashes involving large passenger jets, for example, the outcome is a “probable” cause or “probable” causes.

By requiring evidence of a definite cause or causes of shortfalls, the Post Office is demanding the impossible.  On the other hand, why would it pay compensation when subpostmasters cannot prove that Horizon and the Post Office’s training or procedures were at fault?

Perhaps the only sensible way for these disputes to be settled is for lawyers to stand aside and allow managers to resolve cases on the balance of probabilities.

It’s clear to outsiders that 150 subpostmasters have not had criminal intent when, as happened in some cases, they signed off unreconciled accounts as correct. Many are victims of miscarriages of justice and deserve to have adequate compensation and their names cleared. The sooner this happens the sooner the Post Office can reclaim its reputation for fairplay.

If the cases are not settled the campaign for justice could go on indefinitely.

Mediation – letter from Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution to the Post Office. CEDR – mediation review

York Post Office closes amid cash row

Post Office Horizon and last night’s Panorama

 

Post Office’s Horizon IT and tonight’s BBC Panorama

By Tony Collins

This evening BBC1 is due to broadcast a Panorama [7.30pm] on the Post Office’s Horizon IT system and complaints by more than 100 subpostmasters.

The Radio Times says of the programme:

“Dozens of sub-postmasters have been prosecuted after their computers showed that money had gone missing, but could there be other explanations for the cash shortfalls? John Sweeney meets a whistleblower who says there were problems with the IT system, and also investigates claims that the Post Office charged some with theft even when the evidence didn’t stack up.”

John Sweeney is one of the most dogged reporters in TV. Another journalist Nick Wallis helped in the making of the programme. He has already presented short documentaries on the Horizon system and the complaints of subpostmasters on BBC’s “One” programme.

The broadcast is likely to add weight to a Parliamentary campaign for justice for subpostmasters who have been made bankrupt, lost their homes and livelihoods, gone to jail or had to pay to the Post Office tens of thousands of pounds the Horizon system said they owed.

The Post Office says that exhaustive investigations have shown there is no systemic fault with Horizon.

Last month the PO urged aggrieved subpostmasters to “engage” with its mediation scheme. But the campaigning group the “Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance” says that it is “not aware of a single case that has been to a Mediation meeting where the applicant has been the slightest bit happy with the outcome, or that the meeting brought resolution between the two parties, which was the stated aim of the Scheme”.

It adds that the Alliance is “aware of a number of cases that have been to Mediation meetings where the applicants have been left distraught and angry at Post Office’s unwillingness to listen or even consider the issues that they have raised”.

The PO says it acknowledges that the mediation scheme has “taken longer than all those involved would have liked”. It adds in an email to subpostmasters: “However, we do now have the opportunity to sit down with you and your professional adviser if you have one, to discuss your complaint in detail and look forward to the opportunity to do so”.

Comment

BBC2 has been running a series on the Post Office, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered – inside the Post Office” which was filmed with the PO’s co-operation.

In part it shows the PO’s difficulties trying to recruit subpostmasters for local post offices that may otherwise face closure. The government has said the Post Office must keep all of its 11,500 branches open. Not allowing a single branch to close is a huge challenge for the Post Office.

Now another part of the BBC is due to broadcast a Panorama programme on how some subpostmasters have had their lives ruined when they have run into difficulties that involve the Horizon system.

Are those difficulties one reason the PO is struggling to recruit 600 subpostmasters to keep some local post offices alive?

The pressure on the PO to take unambiguous action to right the perception of a massive injustice is growing. Aside from the bad publicity, and the campaign for justice led by MPs, next month a tribunal is due to take place of Fozia Rashid who claims she was sacked from the Post Office’s Knaresborough High Street branch, in July 2013, after witnessing and attempting to report a series of criminal activities, including potential institutional fraud and errors in the Horizon software. Her hearing starts on 3 September 2015 in Leeds.

She says on Twitter that the Post Office has made her offers to settle. Any publicity of the case is unlikely to make it easier for the Post Office to recruit more subpostmasters.

When will the PO accept that more than 100 people, many of whom signed up in search of an idyllic village life running a local post office,  cannot all have been dishonest and were likely victims of circumstances beyond their control?

Tonight’s Panorama is well worth watching.

Jailed and bankrupt because of “unfit” IT?

Post Office looking to replace Horizon? – Computer Weekly

Decent lives destroyed by the Post Office? – Daily Mail

Post Office “failings” over cash shortage investigations – BBC

MPs attack Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme

Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance

Some lesser-known costs of outsourced IT?

By Tony Collins

An outsourcing contract may work well in general, but what when things go wrong and the customer needs  non-routine or extra-contractual information and answers from the supplier ?

 

The Post Office has received a reliable, nationwide IT service from Fujitsu for more than 14 years. A centrally-imposed contract ties in post offices across the country to using Fujitsu’s Horizon accounting system

The Post Office is delighted with the system and the service, and always has been. For some years its officials considered Horizon infallible, according to evidence given to the Business, Innovation  and Skills Committee last week.

Fujitsu has continued to enhance the system and service – sometimes at its own cost.  Most post office staff have had no complaints with the system – but more than 150 subpostmasters say they have had problems that, in some cases, have ruined their lives.

During a hearing that lasted nearly three hours, the Committee’s MPs heard that the Post Office’s contract with Fujitsu meant that investigating some complaints or queries with the system was not always contractually straightforward.

Kay Linnell, a forensic accountant and fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants,  told MPs:

“My understanding is that the Post Office had to pay for metadata from their contractors Fujitsu. This meant that when a shortage or overage arose and subpostmasters tried to investigate it and asked the Post Office about it, there was an extreme reluctance to investigate each and every shortage or overage.”

And Ian Henderson, a chartered accountant and forensic computer specialist with 2nd Sight, told the Committee:

“… The software … works well most of the time. Like any large system, it occasionally generates errors.

“Our concern is the response by Post Office to supporting sub-postmasters when they face those problems. Yes, there is a helpline facility, and, yes, training is provided, but there is no formal investigative support.

“Under the contract, sub-postmasters are not entitled to investigative support when they say, ‘Look, we’ve got this discrepancy. I don’t understand how it happened.’

“They are left largely to their own resources, supported by the helpline and so on, to get to the bottom of those problems.

“As we have seen time and again, they have failed to do that. In some cases, Post Office has refused to provide information to them on the grounds of cost – this comes back to the contract with Fujitsu. They say, ‘It is too expensive. It is outside the terms of our service level agreement. We cannot provide you with the detailed information that Post Office holds…'”

Investigations into some of the more serious complaints by subpostmasters require access to Horizon’s audit trails. These were available for up to 42 days before 2010 and 60 days since.  MPs heard that sometimes the audit trails would be needed for investigations when they were no longer available.

Missing emails?

Henderson  claimed that 2nd Sight had requested copies of emails for 2008 but was given them for 2009. He told MPs he has still not had the emails for 2008,which the Post Office disputes.

Henderson said:  “Unfortunately, the e-mails that were provided were for the wrong year. We were investigating a specific incident in 2008 and the year’s worth of e-mails that we were given related to 2009. Therefore, it was not surprising that we said, “We have asked for 2008, please provide it.” We have still not had that…

“We were told at the time that with the first batch there were some technology issues relating to the provision of the 2008 e-mails. Two years down the line, we still don’t have those.”

But Angela van den Bogerd for the Post Office replied:  “We provided what we were asked for at the time, so, clearly, there must have been some misunderstanding. We would not have pulled a year’s worth of e-mails for a wrong year.”

Costs of storing data 

Like most commercial organisations the Post Office has to pay to store data, so it has a policy of destroying data after several years. The Committee heard that “some of the cases [being investigated] are regrettably very old, so some of the data are simply not there”.

Comment

When big organisations, particularly councils, outsource their IT, do they always take into account the costs associated with investigations of problems – accessing old audit trails, retrieving other old data such as emails, or searching for information that might have been destroyed to save money?

It’s unclear whether the outsourcing of its IT has helped or hindered the Post Office’s investigations into the complaints of subpostmasters.