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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.
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 2018: Case 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 2018: A 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: Court case where subpostmasters are suing the Post Office set to span at least four trials and extend into 2020.
- January 2019: Subpostmasters’ campaign group attacks Post Office CEO Paula Vennells’ New Year honour amid ongoing court case.
- January 2019: Thousands of known errors on controversial Post Office computer system to be revealed.
- March 2019: Tech under spotlight at High Court in second subpostmasters versus Post Office trial.
- March 2019: Post Office considered Horizon IT system ‘high risk’, court told.
- March 2019: Judge rules that Post Office showed “oppressive behaviour” in response to claimants accused of accounting errors they blamed on Horizon IT system.