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The Court of Appeal has rejected the Post Office legal team’s appeal against a High Court judge’s decision not to remove himself from the Horizon IT system trial.
In April, Judge Fraser, who is presiding over the trial in which more than 550 subpostmasters are suing the Post Office over its Horizon IT system, refused an application made by the Post Office for him to recuse himself. The Post Office alleged the judge showed bias.
Lord Justice Coulson, in the Court of Appeal, said: “The recusal application never had any substance and was rightly rejected by the judge.”
The recusal application came 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 six days earlier issued a ruling on the first trial of four planned in the litigation, which found in favour of the subpostmaster claimants and was highly critical of the Post Office. The first trial analysed whether the contractual relationship between Post Office and subpostmasters, who run branches, was fair.
Part of Fraser’s judgment said: “There can be no excuse, in my judgment, for an entity such as the Post Office to mis-state, in such clearly expressed terms, in letters that threaten legal action, the extent of the contractual obligation upon a [subpostmaster] for losses. The only reason for doing so, in my judgment, must have been to lead the recipients to believe that they had absolutely no option but to pay the sums demanded. It is oppressive behaviour.”
Lord Grabiner, acting for the Post Office as part of its legal team, claimed the ruling of the first trial 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.
Judge Fraser refused to recuse himself. In his ruling, he said he found no apparent bias, and the Post Office said it would appeal the decision. Lord Justice Coulson agreed with Fraser.
In his ruling to reject the appeal, Coulson said: “I set out the reasons for the conclusion in greater detail than usual, only because of the volume and the nature of the criticisms that have been made, and the importance of the group litigation to both parties. I do not do so because of the merits of the application itself, which in my view is without substance.”
He was highly critical of the timing of the Post Office’s recusal application. “The judge learned of the recusal application by accident just before the afternoon session of the last day of factual evidence on the Horizon issues trial (trial 2). This was at best discourteous; at worst, it betrayed a singular lack of openness on the part of the Post Office and their advisors.”
Following the Court of Appeal ruling, Alan Bates – the former subpostmaster who has driven the legal action – said: “Yet again Post Office and its lawyers have been told in very clear terms, this time by the Court of Appeal, that their conduct won’t be tolerated. The claimants will continue to drive this case forward until justice is done.”
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. Bates was one of the subpostmasters originally interviewed by Computer Weekly.
Former MP and now Conservative peer James Arbuthnot said: “While it is hard to believe that the Post Office’s behaviour could have got worse, the Court of Appeal’s judgment suggests that it has.”
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 also 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.
Some claimants were sent to prison, including 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 second trial has so far heard evidence of serious flaws in the Horizon system that the Post Office not only failed to acknowledge flaws, but continuously stated the system was robust and played no part in losses suffered by some subpostmasters. It will be concluded in June.
A third trial, scheduled for October 2019, will focus on individual subpostmasters’ claims, and a fourth trial will probably be held in early 2020.
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: Post Office ‘lacked humanity’ in the treatment of subpostmasters, says peer
- March 2019: CCRC watching Post Office Horizon trial closely
- 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.
- March 2019: 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.
- March 2019: A senior civil servant asked the Post Office to repay public money it had wrongly allocated to paying legal costs.
- April 2019: Subpostmaster claimants’ legal team makes application for the Post Office to pay millions of pounds of costs associated with trial.
- April 2019: Post Office to appeal judgment from first Horizon trial.
- April 2019: 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.
- April 2019: MP questions government over Post Office Horizon case.
- April 2019: Government says no conflict of interest in trial despite Post Office chairman’s dual role.