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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.
The case continues.
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