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Court of Appeal dismisses Post Office application to appeal damning judgment

The Court of Appeal has rejected a Post Office application to appeal judgments made in the first trial of its multimillion-pound battle with subpostmasters over IT system failures.

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:

 

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