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Post Office executives cross-examined in Horizon IT system trial

A High Court trial, where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system, ended its second week.

The High Court case pitting subpostmasters against the Post Office in a group litigation order (GLO) related to a core IT system, ended its second week with Post Office executives in the witness box.

The initial trial, which began on 7 November, is focused on the contractual relationship between subpostmasters and the Post Office.

The GLO was brought by over 500 former subpostmasters who allege that problems with the Horizon computer systems that they and thousands of other subpostmasters used to run their businesses, caused unexplained losses that they have suffered from as a result. Some were heavily fined, others had to pay back thousands of pounds in shortfalls, and in some cases people were sent to prison because of unexplained discrepancies in accounts.

In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of some of these subpostmasters. (See timeline below).

So far the six lead claimants have presented their witness statements and faced cross-examination from David Cavender, QC, representing the Post Office. These are: Alan Bates former subpostmaster at Craig-y-don in North Wales; Mohammad Sabir, a former subpostmaster in Yorkshire; Pam Stubbs who ran a post office in Barkham near Wokingham; Louise Paterson Dar, previously subpostmaster of a branch in Glasgow; Naushad Abdulla, a former subpostmaster in south-east London; and Liz Stockdale, who ran a branch in Bridlington.

The first two Post Office witnesses were then cross-examined by the QC representing the claimants, Patrick Green. These were Nick Beal, head of agents’ development and renumeration at the Post Office, and Paul Williams, restrictions advisor for the Post Office.

They were questioned about the contract that subpostmasters are expected to sign and how the Post Office considers the subpostmaster relationship. QC Green questioned them on the responsibilities subpostmasters take on, which in many cases are legally binding.

Although this first trial is about the contractual relationship between Post Office and subpostmasters, the Horizon system is never far from the discussion. On the first day of the trial, evidence presented revealed a previously undisclosed problem with the Horizon computer system.

During the cross-examination on Thursday, QC Green reminded one of the witnesses that in its skeleton argument the Post Office described the claimants' litigation as an "existential threat" to the Post Office's business model. If the Horizon system was seen as unreliable it could be difficult for the Post Office to sign up subpostmasters, who are critical to its business acting as agents and running post offices.

The judge also discussed logistics with the QCs to ensure that such an important and complex case will proceed effectively. A second trial, which will focus on Horizon, will be held in March next year. A third to look at individual cases is planned later.

The case is being funded by Therium, through third-party litigation funding. This works by a number of funders investing in litigation, paying fees and other costs. If the case is a success, they make a profit, but are risking their investment if the case is lost.

The Post Office recently reaffirmed its confidence in the Horizon system in a statement to Computer Weekly. “We have confidence in the Horizon system, which is robust, reliable and used across 11,500 branches by postmasters, agents and their many thousands of staff to process millions of transactions successfully every day, including on behalf of the UK’s high street banks,” it said.

For live tweeting from court see the Twitter account of broadcast journalist Nick Wallis. Also read his Post Office Trial blog.

The case continues.

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

November 2018Case against Post Office in relation to allegedly faulty computer system begins in High Court

November 2018: High Court case in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has revealed a known problem with a computer system at the core of the dispute

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