Anthony Brown - stock.adobe.com
The Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing the latest judgment in the group litigation between subpostmasters and the Post Office as part of its investigation into potential miscarriages of justice.
The latest judgment spells the beginning of the end for subpostmasters seeking redress for their suffering, at the hands of a faulty computer system, for almost two decades.
The CCRC is reviewing 35 cases where subpostmasters believe they were wrongfully prosecuted for offences such as theft and false accounting, as a result from problems with the Post Office’s Horizon IT system through which they file accounts. The CCRC review began in 2015.
The CCRC, which can refer cases back to the appeal courts, wrote to applicants this week (17 December) after the latest judgment. A spokesperson at the CCRC said: “We are now in the process of giving it detailed consideration and assessing what impact it might have on the Horizon cases which we have under review.
“We aim to carry out that assessment as swiftly as we can although, as you know, the judgment is lengthy and detailed, running to over 300 pages.”
The spokesperson could not say when decisions will be made by the CCRC, but added that all applicants will updated before the end of January 2020.
This week’s judgment in the High Court confirmed that subpostmasters were right when they claimed problems with Horizon could have caused accounting shortfalls.
This was part of a multimillion-pound group litigation that saw 550 subpostmasters take on the Post Office. The case was settled in their favour with the Post Office paying £57.7m in damages, apologising, and promising to transform how it works with subpostmasters, as well as making other concessions.
The Post Office had strenuously denied the problems could stem from the IT system to the point that the Judge Fraser, managing the case, described the organisation’s attitude as “the 21st century equivalent of maintaining that the Earth is flat”.
In March, an early judgment for the first trial in the case, which examined the contractual relationship between the Post Office and subpostmasters, found the Post Office demonstrated “oppressive behaviour.” This was likened to the treatment of Victorian factory workers by a Court of Appeal judge.
The plight of some subpostmasters was first reported by Computer Weekly in 2009.
Some were forced repay money that they said they did not take, which left many with massive debts. When threatened with prison, many pleaded guilty even though they did not take money. Some that refused to plead guilty then went to prison.
The group litigation might be over, with an out-of-court settlement, but according to claimants it was “the end of the beginning”.
As well as the potential for prosecuted subpostmasters to have their cases referred for appeal by the CCRC, there have been calls for a judge-led inquiry into the controversy.
There could be further legal consequences. Evidence from witnesses from the IT services company that supports Horizon, Fuijtsu, could also be reviewed, after the judge had concerns and passed information to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
“Based on the knowledge that I have gained, I have very grave concerns regarding veracity of evidence given by Fujitsu employees to other courts in previous proceedings about the known existence of bugs, errors and defects in the Horizon system,” said Judge Fraser, before handing down his latest judgment.
In the latest development, the head of forensic investigation firm Second Sight, Ron Warmington, hired by the Post Office in 2013 to do a detailed examination of Horizon and subpostmaster cases, has spoken out after the latest judgment.
According to a blog about the case by broadcast journalist Nick Wallis, Ron Warmington believes that cash in Post Office suspense accounts has been unfairly taken from the pockets of subpostmasters and funnelled into Post Office profits.
Ron Warmington, Second Sight
“The Post Office has improperly enriched itself, through the decades, with funds that have passed through its own suspense accounts,” said Warmington.
“Had its own staff more diligently investigated to establish who were the rightful owners of those funds, they would have been returned to them, whether they were Post Office’s customers or its subpostmasters. When is the Post Office going to return the funds that, in effect, belonged to its subpostmasters?
“It also seems to be clear now that some of those funds could have been generated by Horizon itself, or by errors made by the Post Office’s own staff, or by those of Fujitsu. They weren’t ‘real’ losses at all. They were phantom discrepancies.”
After Second Sight’s 96-page report was published in April 2015, saying that the Post Office had been too quick to take legal action against subpostmasters, the Post Office published an 83-page report of its own, claiming that Second Sight’s claims were wrong.
The Post Office is a publicly owned organisation and part of the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Computer Weekly contacted BEIS for comment on the government’s plan to redress the grievances of hundreds, potentially thousands, of subpostmasters that have been wronged.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “We welcome the announcement that a resolution has been reached between the parties to settle this long-running litigation and the steps they have taken through the mediation talks.
“We stand by to support the organisation as it looks forward to moving ahead and shaping a modern and dynamic Post Office.”
There are also calls for Horizon to be scrapped. Mark Baker of the CWU, who is a serving subpostmaster, said: “The whole matter will rumble on because there are 11,000 subpostmasters who have to work with this system daily, which has now been labelled as not being robust.”
Baker said the system either has to be heavily modified or, “more sensibly”, replaced with a new platform. “It does not have to be as sophisticated as the previous system because the number and variety of transactions is smaller,” he said.
The problems with the Horizon system were alerted to the Post Office 20 years ago by Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster who led the claimants. In 2000, just after Horizon was introduced, Bates experienced problems, which he explained to the Post Office. When the Post Office did nothing, he began a one-man campaign to get to the truth.
Bates set up a website to find others who had suffered at the hands of the system, contacted Computer Weekly, set up a campaign group, and eventually – and against the odds – took legal action against the Post Office, and won.
Earlier this week, Post Office chairman Tim Parker said: “In reaching last week’s settlement with the claimants, we accepted our past shortcomings and I, both personally and on behalf of the Post Office, sincerely apologise to those affected when we got things wrong.
“We have given a commitment to learning lessons from these events, and today’s judgment underlines the need to do so.”
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 judgment for a trial that focused on the Post Office’s IT system at the centre of a multimillion-pound litigation will be announced early next month.
- November 2019: The Court of Appeal has rejected a Post Office application to appeal judgments made in the its multimillion-pound battle with subpostmasters over IT system failures.
- November 2019: Peer calls for clear-out of Post Office board after Court of Appeal confirms major court defeat.
- December 2019: The Post Office has settled its long-running legal dispute with subpostmasters, and will pay £57.75m in damages.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters ended their legal battle with the Post Office at the optimal time, according to the lawyer that managed the High Court action.
- December 2019: Subpostmasters proved right on IT system failures as calls for full public inquiry mount.
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