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MP questions government over Post Office Horizon case

Labour MP asks the government about the costs associated with the Post Office Horizon legal battle

Labour MP Kevan Jones has submitted questions to the government department responsible for the Post Office, amid spiralling costs and a potential conflict of interest in the organisation’s legal battle over its allegedly faulty computer system.

About 550 subpostmasters, who run local Post Office branches, are suing the government-owned company for damages. The court case is currently part way through the second of four planned trials.

The plight of some subpostmasters was first reported in 2009, when Computer Weekly revealed how their lives had been turned upside-down after being fined, sacked, made bankrupt or even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls. They blamed the Horizon accounting and retail system for the problems, but the Post Office has refuted this (see timeline below).

Jones is one of a group of MPs campaigning to get to the bottom of the controversy over the Horizon system. The group was previously led by James Arbuthnot, MP for Hampshire North East, before he moved to the House of Lords. When Arbuthnot confirmed he was not standing for re-election he said he would hand over the role in the campaign group to Jones.

The first trial, held in November 2018, focused on the contract between subpostmasters and the Post Office. Judge Fraser, the managing judge, handed down his judgment in March. In his judgment at the first trial, Fraser was critical of Post Office business practices and some of its witnesses.

At the end of the second week of trial two, which is examining the Horizon computer system, the Post Office legal team made an application for the judge to recuse (remove) himself from the case for alleged bias.

The judge has since rejected this and the Post Office is seeking permission to appeal the decision with the Court of Appeal. The Post Office also said it would appeal some of the judgments in the first trial.

Questions for government

Jones has asked secretary of state for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), in a written question: “What steps [are being] taken to ensure the government is held accountable for the decisions and actions of Post Office Limited in the handling of postmasters’ problems with Horizon?”

The case, a group litigation order (GLO), is one of the largest in the UK. Costs of such a case are high. For example, the legal team representing the claimants has submitted a bill, likely to be for several million pounds, for legal costs in the first trial in the case.

Jones also asked the BEIS whether public money had been used to pay costs involved in the ongoing dispute with postmasters since 2000.

He also asked what the anticipated increased cost implications were for the Post Office in its dealing with serving subpostmasters, following the High Court decision handed down on 15 March 2019.

There is also concern over a potential conflict of interest because Post Office chairman Tim Parker is also independent chair of the HM Courts and Tribunal Service Board.

Jones asked whether the Lord Chancellor would “determine the extent of any conflict of interest on the part of Tim Parker by reason of his dual roles”.

The second trial, which has just completed the hearing of evidence of fact, will restart in June with IT expert witnesses for both sides. There are two further trials planned, taking the case into 2020.

The Post Office said in a statement: “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.”

The case continues.

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


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