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Court orders Post Office to explain inability to access encrypted file

Post Office unable to open encrypted recording of an interview that forms part of its evidence in High Court case

The legal team representing the Post Office in a High Court group litigation order has been ordered to explain why it has been unable to open an encrypted recording of an interview which forms part of its evidence.

After missing a deadline to provide access to the recording, the Post Office has been ordered to provide a witness statement explaining what steps it has taken to access the encrypted file. This must be provided by noon on Monday 10 December.

The recording is an important court disclosure as part of a High Court litigation in which more than 550 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for the suffering they experienced after unexplained discrepancies were revealed in accounts.

It is an audio recording of a Post Office manager’s interview with Liz Stockdale, who ran a branch in Bridlington and is one of the lead claimants.

The Post Office was told to instruct an IT company to provide a transcript of the recording of the interview, which took place on 5 February 2014, but it has so far been unable to open the file, which is encrypted. It missed a deadline to provide a transcript on 6 December and must now explain, in a witness statement, what efforts it has made to comply.

The court order had stated: “Insofar as the file containing the recording is encrypted or otherwise password protected, that IT consultancy shall take all reasonable and sufficient steps to access that recording so that a transcript is made available to the court by 5pm on Thursday 6 December 2018.”

This was not complied with.

The order added: “If, despite all reasonable and sufficient steps, the IT consultancy is unable to access the recording, then a witness statement to be provided from the relevant professional at that IT consultancy explaining in detail the steps that have been taken, and why no transcription is possible.”

The trial, which is the first of four scheduled concerning the case, focused on the contractual relationship between subpostmasters and the Post Office. This includes how the Post Office deals with unexplained accounting errors.

The case follows a long campaign by subpostmasters. In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of some subpostmasters, who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon computer system (see timeline below for all Computer Weekly coverage).

The group litigation order, which is seeking compensation for the subpostmasters, is being funded by Therium through third-party litigation funding. This involves a number of funders investing in the litigation, paying fees and other costs. If the case succeeds, they make a profit, but their investment is at risk if the case is lost.

Further trials are planned for March and October next year and the case will continue into 2020, with a fourth trial planned early that year.

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

December 2018: Complex Post Office Horizon case set to continue into 2020 

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