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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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