Tombaky - Fotolia
Subpostmasters are continuing to campaign on multiple fronts after their stunning victory in a multimillion-pound litigation against the Post Office.
There are calls for a judge-led public inquiry, with affected subpostmasters meeting MPs to take their grievances to the House of Commons.
After the government distanced itself from the behaviour of the publicly owned Post Office, Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, a staunch critic of the Post Office over the Horizon scandal, said: “Parliament must not allow [Government] to get away with it.”
Gill Furniss, Labour’s shadow minister for post, also stepped into the fray with a speech on the matter in Parliament. Meanwhile, an online petition calling for a public inquiry has been set up.
The £57.75m out-of-court settlement between the Post Office and 550 subpostmasters was described as “the end of the beginning” by claimants who are determined for justice beyond being proved right and receiving scant damages. After costs are taken out of the settlement figure, subpostmasters are left with about £10m – well short of the losses they suffered.
There are also subpostmasters living with criminal records after being prosecuted for theft because of accounting shortfalls.
The court case established that the Post Office was wrong in its long-held claim that accounting shortfalls for which subpostmasters were punished, with some spending time in prison, could not have been caused by the Horizon IT system used in Post Office branches.
The criticism of the Post Office and its IT supplier, Fujitsu, by High Court judge Peter Fraser in his judgments, combined with the government distancing itself from the events, make calls for an independent judge-led inquiry compelling.
The Post Office is a publicly owned organisation that is run at arm’s length by the government as part of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It was this ill-defined relationship that was used by the government to distance itself from the scandal.
When asked about its role in the litigation and management of the Post Office earlier this month, a BEIS spokesperson said: “While publicly owned, the Post Office operates as an independent, commercial business within the strategic parameters set by government. As such, government did not play a day-to-day role in the litigation or on the contractual and operational matters that were at the heart of it.”
Arbuthnot’s response to this statement was: “This is an inadequate response from the owners of an organisation that judges have described as treating subpostmasters in ‘capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory owner’.
“If government ministers were indeed updated regularly with developments, then they must have been complicit in that capricious or arbitrary behaviour. It is no good their choosing to turn a blind eye to it. They were the owners. Brushing off responsibility onto their agents, who are answerable only to the government, is a sorry attempt to blame someone else.”
After the case ended in December, Arbuthnot immediately called for a judge-led inquiry. “We need an inquiry and, since the Post Office has repeatedly given inaccurate information, including to me, it needs to be led by a judge,” he said.
To help the push for an inquiry, subpostmasters have been demanding meetings with MPs and the campaign has now moved to the benches of the House of Commons.
Gill Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough and shadow minister for steel, post and consumer protection, gave a speech in Parliament this week in which she said: “Subpostmasters across the country bring a valuable services to our communities. The case brought against the Post Office [by subpostmasters] is now concluded and the court found that the Post Office was at fault for their regressive prosecution of subpostmasters for the errors within the Horizon IT system – prosecutions that saw some subpostmasters unlawfully jailed, many losing their homes, livelihoods and reputations.”
Furniss asked the government whether it would call a full inquiry into the “circumstances that led to this tragedy” and asked: “What support is the government giving to those affected and what is being done to ensure a scandal like this is never allowed to happen again?”
She called for a full review of the governance and management of the Post Office.
Computer Weekly first reported the problems with Horizon in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters. Soon after this, more subpostmasters came forward. But the dispute dates back further than that.
Former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who fronted the litigation and set up the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, first contacted Computer Weekly in 2004, four years after he had first alerted the Post Office to the problems (see timeline below).
Click this link to sign a petition calling for a full judge-led public inquiry.
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 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.
- December 2019: Criminal Courts Review Commission to review Horizon judgment ‘swiftly’.
- December 2019:National Federation of Subpostmasters cries foul after court ruling on controversial computer system.
- December 2019:Former Post Office CEO apologises to subpostmasters over Horizon scandal.
- December 2019: Call for former Post Office CEO to step down from public roles after IT court battle lost.
- January 2020: Fujitsu must face scrutiny following Post Office Horizon trial judgment.
- January 2020: Subpostmaster group calls for government to pay legal costs for Horizon trial.
- January 2020:Why subpostmasters are calling on the government to pay Horizon trial costs.
- January 2020: Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy says it did not make decisions in the Post Office’s recent court battle.
Read more on IT for government and public sector
Police open criminal investigation into potential perjury by Fujitsu staff in Post Office IT trials
MPs to examine fairness of private prosecutions in light of Post Office IT scandal
Firm that investigated controversial Post Office IT system to support criminal conviction appeals
CCRC sends 47 subpostmaster miscarriages of justice for appeal, asks for prosecution powers review