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The first of three High Court trials in which subpostmasters are claiming damages for the suffering they experienced because of unexplained discrepancies in accounts, has completed the cross-examination of witnesses.
Six lead claimants were cross-examined, followed by 14 Post Office employees, including Post Office director Angela van den Bogerd.
The court will not sit again until Monday 3 December to allow the two sides to present their written arguments to the judge. The legal teams will then come back to put their arguments forward verbally, with two days allocated for each. A ruling in the first trial is expected in January.
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of subpostmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon computer system.
After years of campaigning, more than 500 subpostmasters led by Alan Bates, the lead claimant, forced the issue into court through a group litigation order, funded by Therium through third-party litigation funding.
The Post Office’s QC, David Cavender, described the case as an “existential threat” to the Post Offices business model, and according to The Lawyer, it is one of the top 20 cases to watch this year.
A total of six lead claimants, all former subpostmasters, and 14 Post Office staff were cross-examined by the QCs representing each side.
The first trial has focused on the contractual relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters, which is agency-based. Next March, the second trial will look at the Horizon computer system and supporting technologies, and by a third trial later in the year, probably October, will focus on some individual subpostmasters’ cases.
The contract under the microscope in the first trial was once described by MPs as “Dickensian” and slanted in favour of the Post Office.
Court disclosures and witness statements have revealed that Horizon has had known errors that can cause unexplained losses, which the Post Office allegedly did not always tell subpostmasters about.
During cross-examination, Patrick Green, QC for the claimants, drew an example to the attention of Post Office director van den Bogerd, who admitted that Horizon is not error free. “Overall, [Horizon] is robust but it will make mistakes and we have to correct them,” she said in court.
In one example put to van den Bogerd in court, errors caused by Horizon had led to inaccurate accounts at some branches.
Van den Bogerd said the Post Office could have told subposmasters about errors, but did not.
The case continues.
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