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Judge in Post Office trial rejects application to recuse himself

The Post Office’s claim that the judge overseeing the case concerning its controversial Horizon IT system was biased has been dismissed – but will now be considered by the Court of Appeal

The judge presiding over the trial in which more than 550 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office over its Horizon IT system has dismissed an application to remove himself from the case.

The Post Office will now go to the Court of Appeal after Judge Fraser also refused permission to appeal against his decision.

The Horizon case, which has been suspended since the recusal application was made on 21 March, will resume on Thursday 11 April to finish hearing evidence of fact. It will then resume with expert IT evidence, but not before late May.

In a shock move last month – days into the second of four planned trials in the case – the Post Office called for the judge to be removed from the case after questioning his impartiality.

Judge Fraser had issued a ruling the week after the first trial, which found in favour of the subpostmaster claimants and was highly critical of the Post Office.

Lord Grabiner, acting for the Post Office as part of its legal team, claimed the ruling demonstrated that Fraser would be biased in his subsequent opinions towards the defendant. In such a situation, the presiding judge is required to decide whether he or she has acted in such a way as to require recusal, he said.

In his ruling to dismiss the Post Office claim, Judge Fraser said he found no apparent bias in any event.

"However, even were I to have concluded that point to the contrary, and found that there was sufficient to justify the Post Office's application for recusal, I consider the delay, and the continued conducting of the Horizon Issues trial, including both the cross-examination of all of the claimants' witnesses of fact, and the calling of almost all of the Post Office's own witnesses of fact, to constitute an unequivocal waiver of any right the Post Office might have had to ask me to abandon the Horizon Issues trial and recuse myself from further involvement as the managing judge," he said.

“I intend to continue with the Horizon Issues trial, and I intend to continue as the Managing Judge. I am confident that I can resolve all the existing and future issues in this litigation in a wholly impartial and judicial manner," said Fraser,

James Hartley, a partner at law firm Freeths, which is acting for the pressure group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which brought the group litigation against the Post Office, said a Post Office appeal on issues such as this and others in the case came as no surprise.

“The various procedural twists and turns, which we expect in complex litigation, won’t affect the ultimate outcome, which the claimants are confident will be in line with the first judgment – namely justice being delivered to the claimants,” he said.

Alan Bates, founder of JFSA and lead claimant in the case, said: “This move by Post Office Ltd to have the judge recused was just another act by an organisation abusing the use of public money to litigate a valid case into the ground in order to protect the reputations of just a few individuals and a dysfunctional business.”

The Post Office said in a statement: “We will be seeking to appeal the judgment on the recusal application and to continue to vigorously defend this litigation. We believe the overall litigation remains the best opportunity to resolve long-standing issues in order to ensure a stable and sustainable Post Office network for the benefit of the communities who rely on our services every single day.”

UPDATE: The Post Office confirmed on 11 April that it has submitted an application seeking permission to appeal the recusal ruling to the Court of Appeal.

Freeths has already submitted an application for the Post Office to pay the legal costs in the first trial, likely to be for several million pounds.

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

Horizon, which was introduced in 1999/2000, is used in 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, through which more than 550 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office.

The case continues.

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

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