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Subpostmaster group calls for government to pay legal costs for Horizon trial

The group of subpostmasters that defeated the Post Office in court over a faulty IT system are calling for the government to pay the costs of the legal action

The group representing the subpostmasters that defeated the Post Office in court over a controversial computer system is calling for the government to pay the costs associated with the legal battle.

The group of 550 claimants won a court battle, which cost tens of millions of pounds, over errors in the Horizon computer system that caused them suffering, including financial losses, criminal records and prison sentences.

But after costs were taken out of the £57.75m damages, claimants were left with far less money than the amount they lost as a result of Horizon errors. The subpostmaster campaign group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which has supported the claimants for a decade, is now calling for the government to cover legal costs because it claims it was the government’s lack of action earlier in the scandal that led to the court case and the high costs.

In an update from the JFSA, seen by Computer Weekly, Alan Bates, one of the lead claimants and founder of the JFSA, told subpostmasters that the sum recovered “is considerably less than what individuals have lost, even if you just consider direct losses”. He said to start with, “we need to recover the cost to the group for having to take the Post Office to court”.

In the letter to subpostmasters, Bates said the JFSA had written to Kelly Tolhurst MP, minister for postal affairs, requesting payment from the government to cover the legal costs.

He accused the government of not doing enough to prevent the problems, which forced the subpostmasters to go the expensive length of taking the group litigation route for redress of their grievances.

“We need to recover the cost to the group for having to take the Post Office to court”
Alan Bates, JFSA

Bates wrote: “Ministers and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) should have been considerably more proactive in delving into the problems that individuals, the media and MPs have been raising with the department ever since Horizon was introduced.

“The claimant group is now seeking to recover the cost from government, and in particular BEIS, for having to bring the litigation in order to provide the evidence of the numerous instances of mistreatment and mismanagement of subpostmasters by the Post Office.”

To emphasise the seriousness of the Post Offices failures, he said the JFSA had included a copy of the High Court judge’s latest damning judgment in the case, along with a payment request for the costs incurred.

A long, expensive journey

On 11 December 2019, the Post Office settled the long-running dispute with claimants and agreed to pay £57.75m in damages. But as well as costs for legal representation, there is a substantial payment to the funder of the case, Therium, which took the financial risk of the litigation. After costs are taken out, claimants will be left with about £10m to share. This will not be shared equally, as some claims are for relatively small amounts.

Computer Weekly first reported the problems with Horizon in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, as more subpostmasters came forward, Alan Bates formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and began campaigning. Bates first contacted Computer Weekly in 2004 and had first alerted the Post Office to the problems in 2000.

After years of campaigning, Bates and others forced a group litigation against the Post Office and, after the second trial of the four that were planned, claimed victory when the Post Office settled with claimants.

There have been calls for a judge-led inquiry, most notably from peer James Arbuthnot, and questions remain over the role of Fujitsu, the IT services company that supplies the Horizon system.

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

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