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Government says no conflict of interest in trial despite Post Office chairman’s dual role

BEIS refutes MP’s suggestion of Post Office chairman’s conflict of interest in group litigation case involving Horizon IT system

The government has said there is no conflict of interest in the current litigation against the Post Office as a result of Post Office chairman Tim Parker’s role with HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS).

In response to written questions, the government said that the HMCTS board, on which Parker sits, has no involvement in individual cases and that HMCTS does not influence outcomes.

The written questions were from MP Kevan Jones to the secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS) on the costs of the trial to the public purse, as well as concerns that there could be a conflict of interest because the Post Office chairman is also the independent chair of HMCTS.

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

The department replied: “There is no conflict of interest. The chairman of the HMCTS board has no involvement in individual cases, including listings or hearings. HMCTS manages the administration of courts and tribunals and has no influence over the outcome of hearings, which are decisions entirely for the independent judiciary.”

The case, a group litigation order, involves about 550 subpostmasters, who run local Post Office branches, suing the Post Office for damages for suffering they claim was caused by faults in the Horizon IT system they use to run their branches.

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).

The case is currently part-way through the second of four planned trials. 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 which he was critical of the Post Office’s 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 take the matter to the Court of Appeal. The Post Office has also said it will appeal some of the judgments in the first trial.

Costs of the litigation are mounting, with tens of millions of pounds already spent.

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

The department responded: “The courts are the right place to hear and resolve what are long-standing issues between some postmasters and the Post Office. While this matter rests with the courts, it is inappropriate for the government to comment further. The legal defence of this litigation and the costs involved in doing so are being handled by Post Office Ltd, which operates as an independent, commercial business within the strategic parameters set by government.”

It gave the same answer for other questions about costs.

For the full questions and answers, read here.

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

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