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Former Conservative MP James Arbuthnot said he has never read a judgment like the one handed down for the first trial in the Post Office IT system case in the High Court.
Now in the House of Lords, Arbuthnot said the judgment was “quite ferocious”.
The case is part of a group litigation order (GLO), through which more than 500 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office for damages caused by their treatment after experiencing unexplained losses that they blame on the computer system. They also criticise the Post Office’s failure to investigate unexplained account shortfalls. The Post Office denies these accusations.
“The judgment is devastating, quite devastating. I think that the management of the Post Office, right the way from the top, have been awful in management terms and in their regard for the truth, their regard for justice and their humanity in the way they have treated people,” Arbuthnot told Computer Weekly.
Arbuthnot took the subpostmaters’ fight to the House of Commons and then to the Lords, when he became a peer after retiring as Conservative MP for Hampshire North East. He became involved when one of his constituents, Jo Hamilton, who was a subpostmaster being threatened with jail at the time, contacted him.
Hamilton was interviewed by Computer Weekly in 2009 as one of the seven initial cases made public. Hamilton had a grocery store with a Post Office attached. Unable to explain accounting shortfalls and faced with the prospect of a prison sentence, Hamilton pleaded guilty to false accounting. Her house was remortgaged to pay the money, and the villagers in South Warnborough collected £9,000 between them to help.
“The Post Office has been prepared to see their subpostmasters go to the wall on evidence they knew was wrong or non-existent. It is a shocking state of affairs,” said Arbuthnot.
There will be at least four trials in the case. The first put the relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters under the spotlight. The second trial, which is focused on the Horizon computer system itself, is currently underway. A third trial, scheduled for October 2019, will focus on individual subpostmasters’ claims, and a fourth trial will probably be held in early 2020.
Following the judgment on the first trial, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “This judgment from the first trial is long and detailed and we will take time to consider it fully. There are, however, areas around the interpretation of our contracts where the judge’s conclusions differ from what we expected from a legal standpoint and we are therefore seriously considering an appeal on certain legal interpretations,” he added.
Arbuthnot, who studied law at the University of Cambridge and became a barrister, questioned whether the Post Office would be able to recover in the case after the first judgment.
“I personally find it difficult to see, in legal teams, how the Post Office in trials two, three and four can come back from such a devastating result in trial one,” he said.
“The Post Office was disbelieved all the way down the line, and a senior director at the Post Office was found to be deliberately misleading the judge.”
In the 300-page judgement handed down on 15 March, Judge Fraser said there were two specific matters where Post Office director Van Den Bogerd “did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters, and mislead me”.
‘Intimidating’ culture at Post Office
Arbuthnot criticised the culture within the Post Office. “It is clearly a culture which was designed to bully and intimidate subpostmasters every step of the way and deny them the evidence they needed to question the transactions they believed to be wrong,” he said.
He described Alan Bates, the former subpostmaster who has campaigned for justice for almost two decades, as a “tour de force”.
Describing Bates in his judgment for the first trial, Judge Fraser said: “He is undoubtedly committed to resolving this dispute, and given the length of time he has been involved, he must have a degree of stamina and endurance that most people would not possess. He is persistent and no doubt possesses what might be termed staying power.”
Bates was a subpostmaster at Craig-y-Don Post Office in Llandudno, Wales, from 1998 to 2003. In 2000, he discovered a shortfall of more than £1,000 which he couldn’t account for, and wrote to the Post Office. After two further letters, the Post Office wrote back in 2002, saying it would write off the amount, but without giving any reason.
Bates continued to have problems with deficits and refused to sign his weekly accounts, as it would have made him liable for any losses. In 2009, he set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which ultimately forced the Post Office into court.
Arbuthnot’s condemnation was also targeted at the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP). “I am particularly pleased that the judge called out the behaviour of the NFSP,” he said.
In his judgment, Judge Fraser said: “It is obvious, in my judgment, that the NFSP is not remotely independent of the Post Office, nor does it appear to put its members’ interests above its own separate commercial interests.”
Following the judgment, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said that despite recent improvements, the judge’s comments were a forceful reminder to do better. “We have taken his criticisms on board and will take action throughout our organisation,” he said.
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.
- March 2019: A high court judge heard that the Post Office did not investigate a computer system error that could cause losses, despite being offered evidence.