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Horizon IT system trial suspended after Post Office accuses judge of bias

The Post Office legal team in the case brought by more than 500 subpostmasters has called for the judge to be recused after questioning his impartiality

In a shock move, the Post Office has questioned the impartiality of the judge overseeing the High Court trial about its controversial Horizon IT system and called for him to be removed from the case.

The trial has been suspended until 3 April, to allow the Post Office to make its application, and for the claimants in the case to oppose the claim. If the application is granted, the trial would have to start again with a different judge. If the judge rejects the application, the Post Office can appeal and the trial will continue during the appeal.

The suspension came as expert witnesses for both parties were due to take the stand for cross-examination. 

The claim by the Post Office is based on a witness statement submitted by a solicitor from the law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, who was involved in a working group set up to oversee a mediation scheme between the Post Office and subpostmasters who claim that problems with Horizon caused financial shortfalls for which they were blamed.

The latest move follows the ruling last week on the first trial in the subpostmasters’ case, where the judge came out overwhelmingly in favour of the claimants. The witness, Andy Parsons, claimed that Judge Fraser’s ruling suggested hostility to the Post Office and that he had already formed an opinion on the matters yet to be discussed in the current and future trials – there are expected to be four trials in total.

The accusation from the Post Office came as a surprise even to its own legal team in the High Court, where the Queen’s Council (QC) representing the organisation was unaware the claim had been submitted until it was revealed in court.

The first trial covered the contractual relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters. Judge Fraser found there was a culture of secrecy and confidentiality generally in the Post Office, but particularly around the Horizon accounting and retail system which subpostmasters use to run the branches.

The witness claimed the judge’s ruling suggested hostility to the Post Office and that he had already formed an opinion on the matters yet to be discussed in the current and future trials

The judge’s criticisms of the Post Office included “oppressive behaviour” when demanding sums of money that could not be accounted for by subpostmasters.

“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,” Fraser said in the ruling.

The judge also accused the Post Office’s most senior witness, director Angela van den Bogerd, of deliberately misleading him, saying there were two specific matters where she “did not give me frank evidence, and sought to obfuscate matters, and mislead me”.

This second trial is examining the Horizon IT system.

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We have reflected in great depth on the proceedings and detailed judgment from the first trial and will continue to consider all options.

“As part of this, we have made an application today for the sitting judge to be recused from the ongoing and upcoming trials. We are acutely aware of the significance of this application."

Alan Bates, lead claimant in the case and founder of pressure group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, said the Post Office move smacks of desperation.

"It seems to me that, as more truth about the way Post Office treated subpostmasters is exposed, the more desperate the Post Office becomes to defend the indefensible and a board and executive which seems totally out of control and being allowed to run riot by its sole shareholder, the government," said Bates.

“To me, it seems that Post Office’s current move is little more than what, in American Football, is known as a ‘Hail Mary’ [a desperate, last minute pass].  Having already thrown the kitchen sink at the case, what is left for Post Office, nailing the front doors of the court shut?"

Lives turned upside-down

The plight of some subpostmasters was first reported in 2009, when Computer Weekly revealed that the lives of some subpostmasters were turned upside-down as a result of being fined, sacked, made bankrupt and even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls. Some claimants were sent to prison, one while pregnant. They blame the accounting and retail system they use, known as Horizon, for the problems. The Post Office denies this.

Horizon, which was introduced in 1999/2000, is used by nearly 12,000 post office branches. Subpostmasters are held liable for any unexplained losses (see timeline below).

The case in the High Court is part of a group litigation order (GLO), through which more than 500 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office. Last week’s ruling was not the final decision in the case, with at least three more trials to be held, including the one currently underway.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon case since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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