Hubris over Horizon? Post Office shocks High Court with accusation of bias

The Post Office likes to describes itself as “the nation’s most trusted brand”. Anyone following the latest developments in the increasingly heated High Court case about its Horizon IT system would be justified in questioning that assertion.

In a move that stunned the court – including the Post Office’s own legal team – the organisation has accused the judge, Sir Peter Fraser, of bias, and suggested he step down from the case. Fraser has been a barrister since 1989, Queen’s Counsel since 2009, and has practised in the Technology and Construction Court field since 1990. He is an experienced judge, who has shown during the case that he has extensive understanding of the often complex technological issues under examination.

Less than a week before, Fraser issued a damning ruling against the Post Office from the first of four trials in the case, in which over 500 subpostmasters claim they were wrongly held responsible for accounting errors allegedly caused by Horizon. In the ruling, Justice Fraser effectively told the most senior Post Office witness that he believed she had lied.

The shock application to recuse the judge came very soon after evidence was presented in court that could potentially undermine many of the Post Office’s previous denials of problems with Horizon. A senior employee of Fujitsu, the IT partner that runs Horizon, admitted that a mistake by one of its staff may have caused a discrepancy in one branch’s accounts, for which the subpostmaster in question was held responsible. Journalist Nick Wallis, who has been live tweeting the case every day from the High Court, called the evidence a “smoking gun”.

The Post Office has consistently claimed that such incidents cannot and have never occurred. Subpostmasters have lost their jobs, livelihoods and sometimes their liberty, after the Post Office refused to acknowledge potential errors in Horizon.

The accusation of bias came from a solicitor working for the Post Office, who claimed that the earlier ruling showed the judge could not be impartial. It’s a stunning accusation. It also means the case has been suspended for two weeks, and even if the claim is denied, it is likely to mean further costly delays to the trial, costing the claimants and all of us taxpayers who are funding the Post Office legal fees. If denied, it may also give the Post Office grounds for appeal should future rulings go against them.

Throughout the 10 years since Computer Weekly first revealed the plight of subpostmasters and the allegations around Horizon, the Post Office has refused to admit one simple, inescapable fact that everyone in IT knows to be true: software is not perfect. Even in the most efficient software application – Horizon has run the Post Office branch network for 20 years – there will be unforeseen bugs, or tiny glitches that are often near-impossible to replicate. Blinkers on, the Post Office has taken technology hubris to new levels.

The claimants’ barrister suggested the Post Office move was “calculated to derail” the trial. The Post Office stands to lose tens of millions of pounds if it loses the case, not to mention the reputational damage. The unanswered question now is how far the organisation is willing to go to prevent that happening.

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