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High court Post Office trial puts subpostmasters’ contract under microscope

Case against Post Office in relation to allegedly faulty computer system begins in High Court

A High Court trial is under way in which more than 500 subpostmasters are seeking damages for what they allege to be unfair treatment by the Post Office.

The first of three planned hearings began this week to analyse the contractual relationship between the Post Office and the people who manage its local branches.

Following this month-long hearing, another trial will take place in March next year focusing on the IT system at the centre of the dispute, followed by a third hearing that a judge said recently is likely to examine some of the lead claimants’ individual cases.

The controversy dates back to 2008, when Computer Weekly was contacted by a subpostmaster who had discovered unexplained losses in his accounts. Other subpostmasters then also came forward.

They suspected that problems with the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system, which was developed by ICL/Fujitsu Services, were causing accounting shortfalls, for which the Post Office held them liable. Early in 2009, the stories of seven postmasters were published.

Some subpostmasters were heavily fined, lost their livelihoods and were even sent to prison because of unexplained shortfalls in their accounts. One subpostmaster was even in jail while pregnant.

The Post Office has always denied the allegations about Horizon. In a statement, it said the group litigation order “offers the best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved”.

At this week’s hearing, judge Mr Justice Fraser heard opening statements from the QC for the claimants, Patrick Green, and David Cavender, QC for the defence. Then lead claimant Alan Bates took the stand to be cross-examined on his 41-page witness statement.

Bates was a subpostmaster at Craig-y-don in Wales from 1998 to 2003, and went on to create a campaign group known as the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), mounting a campaign that brought about this week’s trial.

After a day of detailed questioning that required Bates to recall things that happened 15 years ago, Pam Stubbs, another lead claimant, was questioned.

Former subpostmaster and claimant Jo Hamilton, who was interviewed by Computer Weekly in 2009 as one of the seven initial cases that were made public, was also in court. She said: “It has been a long time, but finally we can get to the truth.”

CWU postmaster branch secretary Mark Baker was also in court. He told Computer Weekly: “We can finally start to put this to rest.”

The case continues.

Read more from broadcast journalist Nick Wallis, who is attending every day of the trial.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly published its first article in 2009

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 subpostmasters 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 subpostmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system

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

November 2013: 150 subpostmasters 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 subpostmaster IT injustice claims

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

January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office subpostmaster mediation scheme

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

February 2015: Post Office CIO would talk to any subpostmaster 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 subpostmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution

May 2015: IT system related to subpostmaster 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 subpostmasters 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 subpostmasters 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 subpostmasters will take their case to the next stage

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

March 2017: 1,000 subpostmasters 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 subpostmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March

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

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

October 2017: Subpostmasters’ group action against the Post Office reaches an important milestone

November 2017: An end is in sight for subpostmasters’ campaign against alleged wrongful prosecution, which they blame on a faulty computer system

November 2017: The high court judge managing the subpostmasters versus Post Office legal case over an allegedly faulty computer system tells legal teams to cooperate

January 2018: Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion

April 2018: Criminal Cases Review Commission forensic examination of the IT system at the centre of a legal case against the Post Office has raised further questions

May 2018: Post Office branches unable to connect to Horizon computer system for several hours after morning opening time

Oct 2018: After over a decade of controversy, next week marks the beginning of a court battle between subpostmasters and the Post Office

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