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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
September 2009: Postmasters form action group after accounts shortfall
November 2009: Post Office theft case deferred over IT questions
January 2013: Post Office announces amnesty for Horizon evidence
December 2014: MPs to debate subpostmaster IT injustice claims