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The Court of Appeal has dismissed an application made by the Post Office to overturn judgments made by a High Court judge in the first trial of its multimillion-pound litigation with subpostmasters.
Lord Justice Coulson said many of the Post Office’s difficulties in the litigation were “self-inflicted.”
The judgments the Post Office wanted to appeal were in what was known as the "common issues" trial, where the contractual relationship between Post Office and subpostmasters was put under the microscope.
The case, managed by High Court Judge Peter Fraser, is part of a court battle between the Post Office and 550 former subpostmasters who are suing for damages for suffering they say was caused by alleged faults in the Post Office's Horizon IT system used in branches. The case, which has so far seen two trials and two appeals, has cost tens of millions of pounds in total, and still has another two trials planned for next year.
The claimants were blamed for accounting shortfalls and errors, with some losing their livelihoods, being fined, sacked or even imprisoned as a result. The subpostmasters have always protested their innocence and claimed the errors were caused by Horizon.
Alan Bates – the former subpostmaster who has driven the legal action – said: The judge has dismissed the Post Office’s appeal on all 26 grounds. Therefore, the entirety of the Common Issues Judgment in the claimants’ favour still stands. Yet again, this shows that Post Office has wasted good public money in defending the indefensible and it is about time that someone at a very senior level steps in to control this storm that Post Office finds itself in”.
The initial judgment from the common issues trial was damning. Judge Fraser said the Post Office demonstrated “oppressive behaviour” when demanding sums of money that could not be accounted for by subpostmasters.
Fraser also found there was a culture of secrecy and confidentiality generally in the Post Office, but particularly around the Horizon accounting and retail system that subpostmasters use to run the branches.
It is a highly complex litigation. In his written decision on the appeal application by Post Office, referring to Judge Fraser, Lord Justice Coulson said: “No judge will ever know more about this case generally, and the Common Issues specifically, than Fraser J.
“Furthermore, any consideration of the application for permission to appeal must bear in mind the dangers of attempting to untangle one issue for the purposes of an appeal, and the unacceptable ‘island-hopping’ that might result. The oral hearing of the permission application demonstrated all too clearly the impossibility of this task: inevitably, consideration of one issue opened up another, and another, until the whole first instance trial ended up being re-fought. That is manifestly not in the interests of justice.”
Coulson said many of the Post Office’s difficulties are self-inflicted. “For example, as happened during the trial and on the application for permission to appeal both to the judge, and to this court, the Post Office has consistently put its arguments much too high. It made sweeping statements about the trial and the judgment which were demonstrably wrong. The Post Office ascribed various findings or conclusions to the judge which, on analysis, form no part of his judgment. As the judge himself noted when refusing permission to appeal, even when concerned with findings that he did make, the Post Office takes such findings either wholly out of context, mis-stated, or otherwise not correctly summarised.”
He said Fraser’s original decision to reject the application to appeal was the correct one. “In my view, the judge dealt comprehensively with why he refused permission to appeal in his separate judgment of 17 June 2019.”
This is not the first time the Post Office has asked the Court of Appeal for permission to appeal a decision in this case. In May, the Court of Appeal rejected the Post Office legal team’s appeal against Fraser’s decision not to remove himself from the case.
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, from Fujitsu, for the problems, which the Post Office refutes - see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below.
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: 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: Post Office ‘lacked humanity’ in the treatment of subpostmasters, says peer.
- 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.
- May 2019: The Court of Appeal has refused the Post Office’s application to appeal a major decision in the Horizon IT trial.
- May 2019: The Post Office has applied for permission to appeal judgments from the first trial in its IT-related legal battle with subpostmasters.
- May 2019: The judge in the Post Office Horizon trial has ordered the organisation to pay the legal costs of its courtroom adversaries, and refused to give permission to appeal a major judgment.
- June 2019: Post Office asks Court of Appeal for permission to appeal judgment in first Horizon trial.
- July 2019: The Post Office has admitted that some subpostmasters are at risk of accounts not balancing due to an error it does not understand.
- July 2019: Problem revealed during High Court trial left subpostmaster with £18,000 surplus after IT system failed to register full amount of cash scanned in.
- August 2019: Subpostmasters suffering slow running and frozen terminals while Post Office searches for a fix to issues apparently caused by a software update.
- August 2019: The Post Office has fixed the latest problems with its Horizon system, affecting hundreds of branches.
- October 2019: A High Court judgement for a trial that focused on the Post Office’s controversial IT system at the centre of a multimillion-pound litigation will be announced early next month