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Eventful second Post Office Horizon trial ends

The latest High Court trial in the long-running dispute between the Post Office and subpostmasters has concluded, with part three set for March 2020

The second High Court trial in the multimillion-pound court case brought by hundreds of subpostmasters against the Post Office has come to an end after four months.

The trial concentrated on the Horizon IT system that is at the centre of the dispute. It also saw the managing judge’s written judgment from the first trial made public, and the Post Office attempt to have the trial judge changed.

The second trial was part of a group litigation order (GLO) brought by more than 550 former subpostmasters, who are seeking damages for the suffering they have experienced following unexplained discrepancies in accounts. Some received heavy fines, others had to pay back thousands of pounds in shortfalls, and some were even sent to prison. The subpostmasters blame the Post Office’s Horizon IT system for the errors.

The latest trial, which focused on the technology, began in March and concluded at the beginning of July 2019. Revelations at the trial included the existence of a known errors log that contained thousands of Horizon errors that the Post Office and supplier Fujitsu knew about, but did not inform the subpostmasters network.

One known error, which featured heavily on day one of the trial, was first made public by Computer Weekly in November 2015.

The issue has become known as the Dalmellington case, named after the branch in Scotland where thousands of pounds’ worth of payments were duplicated for one subpostmaster. If undetected, this would have appeared as a loss when the accounts were completed, which would be the responsibility of the subpostmaster.

During the second trial, people who worked with Horizon were called as witnesses. They included Richard Roll, former Fujitsu IT worker and whistleblower, and Torstein Olav Godeseth, Fujitsu’s chief architect working with Post Office Horizon.

On 15 March, the judge presiding in the second trial released his judgment from the first trial, which focused on the contractual relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters. The judgment weighed heavily in favour of the subpostmaster claimants.

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

“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,” said the judge.

Just over a week later, the second trial was suspended when the Post Office shocked the court, including its own QC, by making an application for the judge to recuse himself from the trial, which was made on the grounds of alleged bias. Judge Fraser rejected the application and the Post Office took it to the Court of Appeal, where it was also rejected.

Then, in May, the Post Office’s legal team asked the judge for permission to appeal parts of the judgment from the first trial, which he rejected. In June, the Post Office applied to the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal the judgment.

Following delays, caused mainly by the recusal application, a new timetable was set for the third trial, originally planned for November this year, but now due to start on 2 March 2020. There is also the possibility of a fourth trial after that.

Also during the second trial, Judge Fraser made an order for the Post Office to pay 90% of the costs that the claimants had incurred in the first trial, amounting to about £5.5m.

The second trial culminated in the cross-examination of the expert witnesses appointed by both sides, and ended on 2 July.

The court battle began on 7 November 2018 with the first trial, which focused on the contractual relationship between the Post Office and the subpostmasters who run its branches. That trial ended after a month, but the dispute itself has been going on for more than a decade.

The plight of some subpostmasters was first reported in 2009, when Computer Weekly revealed that the lives of some of them 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 refuted this (see timeline below).

As the second trial drew to a close, Computer Weekly revealed another error, which the Communication Workers Union (CWU) believes is a possible variant of the Dalmellington bug. The error, in what is known as the automatic REM (remittance) process, which the Post Office has admitted, caused a subpostmaster to be £18,000 in surplus.

In response to an email from the subpostmaster, Post Office operations director Julie Thomas acknowledged the issue. “We are currently going through a process of identifying the specific branches impacted so that we can contact them,” Thomas said in an email response to the subpostmaster. “We want to be absolutely sure that all branches are aware of the issue and can notify us if they believe they may have been impacted.”

Judge Fraser’s written judgment fromr the second trial is expected to be issued in early October.

The case continues.

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

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