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Complex Post Office Horizon case set to continue into 2020

Court case where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office set to span at least four trials and extend into 2020

The High Court battle between the Post Office and subpostmasters, who claim to have suffered life-changing hardship due to a faulty computer system, will see a fourth trial in early 2020.

The size and complexity of the case, which involves evidence that dates back over a decade, is one of the biggest court cases in the UK. The first trial, which began on 7 November 2018, is now finished, with a judgment likely in January 2019.

This is part of a group litigation order (GLO) brought by more than 550 former subpostmasters. They are seeking damages for the suffering they experienced – some were heavily fined, others had to pay back thousands of pounds in shortfalls, and some were even sent to prison – due to unexplained discrepancies in accounts. The subpostmasters blame the Post Office’s Horizon IT system for the errors.

The first trial focused on the contractual relationship between subpostmasters and the Post Office. It was one of three trials confirmed at the start of court proceedings. The second trial in March 2019 will put the Horizon computer system – at the centre of the case – under the microscope. A third trial in October 2019 will focus on individual subpostmaster claims.

But closing proceedings at the first trial, Judge Fraser said a fourth trial would be held, probably in early 2020.

The judge said the trial was large and complex and things had not been made easier by a lack of cooperation between the parties involved. “The Post Office didn’t even want to have the trial this year,” he said.

While discussing the ongoing case with the Queen’s Counsel for the claimants and the Post Office, Judge Fraser said: “I don’t want to come across as abrupt or unhelpful, but it is a major piece of litigation – I am tasked with resolving it.

A case management conference (CMC) will be held on 31 January 2019, before the second trial begins in March.

Decade-long campaign

The legal battle follows more than a decade of campaigning by subpostmasters. In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of subpostmasters who had received heavy fines and jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on Horizon (see timeline below for all Computer Weekly coverage).

Although the first trial has focused on the contractual relationship between subpostmasters and the Post Office, the Horizon computer system has never been far from argument.

Evidence presented revealed a previously undisclosed problem with the Horizon computer system at the centre of a decade-long dispute between the Post Office and a group of subpostmasters. But in documents referred to in court evidence, a known problem with Horizon is described by the Post Office and its IT partner Fujitsu. A Post Office internal memo from August 2010, referred to in court and entitled Receipts payments mismatch issue memo day 1 OP_0008387, reveals that discrepancies showing at the Horizon counter disappear when the branch follows certain process steps, but will still show within the back-end branch account.

Later, during cross-examination, a Post Office director admitted that the Horizon system had made mistakes, which the Post Office was responsible for correcting, but admitted it did not necessarily have to tell its subpostmaster network about the errors. Angela van den Bogerd, when questioned, said Horizon was not error-free. “Overall, [Horizon] is robust, but it will make mistakes and we have to correct them,” she said in court.

CCRC investigation decision on hold

Separately, the Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing about 30 claims from subpostmasters that they were wrongfully prosecuted for offences such as theft and false accounting, as a result of problems with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system through which they file accounts.

Investigators from the CCRC are currently deciding whether to wait for the outcome of a separate High Court trial before making a decision.

A Post Office statement in regard to the trial said: “The Post Office is robustly defending its position in the court and welcomes the opportunity to do so. We take these cases extremely seriously and we have worked hard over a number of years to address the issues raised. We have conducted thorough investigations and sought to resolve some of the claims through mediation.

Our employees and postmasters are important to us and we take our relationships with them very seriously. We have confidence in our network of 11,500 Post Office branches and the systems underpinning it. The Horizon computer system is operated successfully by thousands of employees, postmasters and their staff to process 47 million transactions every week.

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

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it 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 will 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

October 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

November 2018A High Court trial, where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by an allegedly faulty IT system, ends second week

November 2018: Post Office director admits to Horizon errors and not sharing details with subpostmaster network

November 2018: The High Court trial in which subpostmasters are suing the Post Office has reached an important stage

December 2018: CCRC may hold off subpostmaster decision until after Post Office Horizon trial


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