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Court dates set for Post Office accounting system trials

An end is in sight for sub-postmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system

The group action brought by sub-postmasters against the Post Office will see two trials in the High Court, with the first set for November 2018.

The dates were decided at a meeting with a High Court judge earlier this month, which was held to set out a case timetable.

In the litigation, sub-postmasters claim they have suffered because of a faulty Post Office accounting system. The allegations include false imprisonment and fines for miscounting, which sub-postmasters blame on the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.

This follows more than a decade of campaigning by the Justice For Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA). In May 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the plight of some sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail sentences for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon operating system and supporting processes. The Post Office has vehemently denied this claim (see timeline below).

Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, who worked at the post office in Llandudno, north Wales from 1998 to 2003, set up the JFSA in September 2009 to campaign for sub-postmasters.

The first month-long trial will take place in November 2018, followed by another in March 2019.

The first hearing will establish the legal relationship between the Post Office and sub-postmasters. As part of this, solicitors on both sides will identify 12 lead claimants, out of whom a group of six will be chosen as lead (or sample) cases at the trial, with 20 days set aside for hearing evidence.

The second trial will focus on on matters such as the behaviour of the Post Office towards sub-postmasters, many of whom allege bullying and false imprisonment, for example.

The Post Office has said it will defend the case vigorously. “We are continuing to address the allegations through the court’s processes and will not otherwise comment on specific details,” it said.

“We believe the group litigation order made earlier this year offers the best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved. We have 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.”

The judge presiding over the group action, Justice Fraser, also allowed extra time to enable more sub-postmasters to be added to the action. There are currently 522 claimants in the group, but about 70 more sub-postmasters are seeking to join the action.

Sub-postmasters, including assistants, managers, Crown Office employees and temporary sub-postmasters, who want to join the action should contact Freeths, the legal advisers to the JFSA, by the end of 10 November 2017 if they want to be included in the action.

Separately, the Criminal Courts Review Commission is also looking at claims of wrongful prosecution of sub-postmasters. It has appointed a firm of forensic accountants to look into the Horizon IT system as part of its investigations.

Post Office Horizon: Timeline of events

May 2009: Bankruptcy, prosecution and disrupted livelihoods – postmasters tell their story.

September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall.

November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions.

February 2011: Post Office faces legal action over alleged accounting system failures.

October 2011: 85 sub-postmasters seek legal support in claims against Post Office computer system.

June 2012: Post Office launches external review of system at centre of legal disputes.

January 2013: Post Office admits Horizon system needs more investigation.

January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence.

January 2013: Post Office wants to get to bottom of IT system allegations.

June 2013: Investigation into Post Office accounting system to drill down on strongest cases.

July 2013: Post Office Horizon system investigation reveals concerns.

October 2013: End in sight for sub-postmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.

October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.

November 2013: 150 sub-postmasters file claims over “faulty” Horizon accounting system.

September 2014: Fresh questions raised over Post Office IT system’s role in fraud cases.

December 2014: MPs blast Post Office over IT system investigation and remove backing.

December 2014: Why MPs lost faith in the Post Office’s IT investigation, but vowed to fight on.

December 2014: MPs to debate sub-postmaster IT injustice claims.

December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.

January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office sub-postmaster mediation scheme.

January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.

February 2015: Post Office CIO would talk to any sub-postmaster about IT problems, promises CEO.

March 2015: Post Office ends working group for IT system investigation day before potentially damaging report.

March 2015: MPs seek reassurance over Post Office mediation scheme.

March 2015: Retiring MP aims to uncover truth of alleged Post Office computer system problems.

April 2015: Post Office failed to investigate account shortfalls before legal action, report claims.

April 2015: Criminal Courts Review Commission set to review sub-postmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.

May 2015: IT system related to sub-postmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.

June 2015: Post Office looking to replace controversial Horizon system with IBM, says MP.

July 2015: Campaigners call for independent inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT system dispute.

October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.

November 2015: The union that represents Post Office sub-postmasters has warned of a problem with the Horizon accounting system.

November 2015: An email from Post Office IT support reveals a problem with the Horizon system and supporting processes that could lead to accounting errors.

November 2015: Group litigation against Post Office being prepared in Horizon dispute.

February 2016: Post Office faces group litigation over Horizon IT as sub-postmasters fund class action.

June 2016: Post Office chairman Tim Parker says there would be “considerable risk” associated with changing its Horizon computer system.

November 2016: The legal team hired by a group of sub-postmasters will take their case to the next stage.

January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges sub-postmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.

March 2017: 1,000 sub-postmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.

April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm.

May  2017:  Hundreds of sub-postmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March.

July 2017Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week.

August 2017Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system.

October 2017:  Sub-postmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone.

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