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Post Office director cross-examination confirms lack of investigation into branch IT problems

A high court judge heard that the Post Office did not investigate a computer system error that could cause losses, despite being offered evidence

The Post Office failed to investigate alleged computer system errors that could cause losses for subpostmasters despite being offered evidence, the high court heard.

This was at a time when the system was under scrutiny from the media and members of parliament as a result of stories about unexplained losses being experienced by subpostmasters, who run Post Office branches. The subpostmasters were being forced to pay the shortfalls or face legal action.

When subpostmaster claims were first revealed by Computer Weekly in 2009, the Post Office said there were no errors in the system and that it “would always look into and investigate any issues raised by subpostmasters”.

Now evidence has emerged that reported problems were not always investigated. The revelation came in the second trial in a major legal case which has already revealed a list of known errors in the Post Office’s Horizon computer system that could cause branch losses, which the Post Office previously denied existed.

The IT system used in about 12,000 Post Office branches are at the centre of a Group Litigation Order (GLO). More than 550 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by their treatment after experiencing unexplained losses, they blame on the computer system. They also criticise the Post Office’s failure to investigate unexplained account shortfalls.

But cross-examination of Post Office director Angela van den Bogerd, in the current trial, revealed that the offer of evidence about flaws in Horizon from a subpostmaster was turned down by support teams. 

An email sent in 2013 by the Post Office’s Network Business Support Centre (NBSC) to the branch support team, which was revealed in court, said: “[Subpostmaster] reporting that he has found sensitive issue with Horizon when the system put a phantom cheque on the cheque line in July 2013. Claims to have evidence to support his claim.” This flaw could lead to an unexplained loss, the court heard.

Although the subpostmaster had not suffered a loss himself, he said he had information about how it could happen and threatened to go to his MP as a result. In light of media attention at the time, the NSBC sought advice.

The NBSC email to the branch support team said: “Given the current media, and in particular the BBC’s attention on Horizon, do you think it is worthwhile looking into this ‘alleged flaw’ with Horizon that this subpostmaster has highlighted to preempt any enquiries from his MP?” Support staff did not investigate after discussing it.

Patrick Green QC, for the claimants, said: “Information which might be relevant if you had an interest in knowing the truth about the reliability of Horizon has been offered by a subpostmaster who has rung up, and the subpostmaster has said they’ve got evidence.” Van den Bogerd agreed.

Green then put to her: “And if one had any interest whatsoever in knowing the truth about the reliability of Horizon, you would say, ‘Well, can you please get him to send the evidence?’, wouldn’t you?”

She agreed again. But that is not what happened, said Green.

Judge Fraser then asked Van den Bogerd if she considered the reaction from the Post Office member of staff an adequate reaction. “No. That’s a totally inadequate reaction,” she said. “The fact that we had the details from the branch on there – you know, the name of the branch – it would have been very easy for [Post Office staff] to have contacted to get further information, and I would have expected him to have done so.”

Last week, the second of four planned trials saw cross-examination of claimant witnesses by Antony de Garr Robinson QC, acting for Post Office defence. The current trial is focused on the Horizon computer system.

The first trial, which examined the contractual relationship between the Post office and subpostmasters, was held in November last year.

On 15 March, Judge Fraser handed down his judgement on the first trial, which was described as a “stunning victory” by lead claimant Alan Bates. In the judgement, Fraser was highly critical of Van den Bogerd who was a key witness in the first trial.

In the 300-page judgement handed down on 15 March, he said: “There were two specific matters where [Van Den Bogerd] did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters, and mislead me.”

Post Office practices were also reprimanded. For example, in the way the Post Office demanded that subpostmasters cover accounting shortfalls, he said: “There can be no excuse, in my judgment, for an entity such as the Post Office to mis-state, in such clearly expressed terms, in letters that threaten legal action, the extent of the contractual obligation upon a [subpostmaster] for losses.

“The only reason for doing so, in my judgment, must have been to lead the recipients to believe that they had absolutely no option but to pay the sums demanded. It is oppressive behaviour,” said the ruling.

“The Post Office describes itself on its own website as ‘the nation’s most trusted brand’. So far as these claimants, and the subject matter of this group litigation, are concerned, this might be thought to be wholly wishful thinking,” added Fraser.

The case continues.

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

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