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Subpostmasters to force scrutiny of government’s role in Post Office IT scandal
The government's role in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal could soon be put under the microscope as subpostmasters take their complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman
The government’s handling of the Post Office in relation to its role in miscarriages of justice could soon face major scrutiny, as victims of the Horizon IT scandal prepare to take their complaints to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.
Fresh from their 2019 court victory against the Post Office, a group of 550 subpostmasters will continue their fight for justice by approaching the authority responsible for investigating complaints against government departments.
The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) wants the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s (BEIS) role in the Horizon IT scandal, which led to potentially hundreds of miscarriages of justice and wrecked livelihoods, to be scrutinised. Although the ombudsman cannot force the government to act, with powers similar to a High Court judge, government failures and those responsible for them could be identified.
In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained losses in branches that they claimed were caused by computer errors. The Post Office always denied this and many subpostmasters were prosecuted for theft and false accounting, with prison sentences, community service, criminal records and heavy fines among the injustices they suffered as a result. This has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern times.(see timeline below).
In 2018, 550 subpostmasters took the Post Office to court in a group litigation action to prove the computer system was to blame for unexplained losses. They won the multimillion-pound High Court battle, which concluded in December 2019, proving that the Horizon computer system they used was to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls, and not them.
They won a £57.75m settlement from the Post Office, but after legal costs and money for the litigation funders, claimants were paid only about £11m between them. This came nowhere near covering the losses experienced by the subpostmasters, never mind compensating them for suffering. For example, one subpostmistress who was wrongly found guilty of theft was sent to prison and lost her livelihood, but only received £8000.
The Court of Appeal will soon hear the cases of 39 subpostmaster prosecutions that have been referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which said the unprecedented referral was its biggest ever in terms of numbers. There could be potentially hundreds more cases.
Back in December, after the subpostmasters’ victory in court, former subpostmaster Alan Bates, who led the court action, said he would take the fight for justice to Parliament. Progress was being made towards government action until the Covid-19 pandemic slowed the campaign. Now the JFSA will make a submission to the Parliamentary Ombudsman to complain about government failures in the way it has managed the publicly owned Post Office.
According to the House of Commons Library Briefing, The Parliamentary Ombudsman: role and proposals for reform: “The Parliamentary Ombudsman can investigate complaints from members of the public who believe that they have suffered injustice because of maladministration by government departments or certain public bodies.”
It continues: “Maladministration can be defined as the public body not having acted properly or fairly, or having given a poor service and not put things right”
The Post Office is an arm’s length public sector organisation, with a member of the government sitting on its board. For over a decade the subpostmaster claims were in public, yet the government did little to investigate, which forced the subpostmasters to take action through the courts.
Bates has already written to the government calling for it to cover the legal costs of the group litigation, to leave the subpostmasters with the full damages, and has been pushing for a judge-led public inquiry. The government has refused to pay the legal costs, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson did commit to an inquiry, although halfheartedly, and the BEIS select committee is doing its own investigation.
In an email to JFSA members Bates wrote: “You will all be aware, that despite having gained significant political support to assist us to recover the costs we have had to bear to expose Post Office in the High Court, the current pandemic has meant we have lost the significant headway we were making in Parliament, at least for the moment.
“Despite all media coverage, undoubtedly the only process that has really worked for us was the courts, but as we have learnt, it takes years to follow and costs a shed load of money, but litigation did work and it worked well, holding people to account and exposing the truth.”
He said the terms of the settlement with Post Office means the subpostmasters are not able to take further civil litigation action against the Post Office: “However our focus presently is on Post Office’s only shareholder, the government, and BEIS that is tasked to oversee and manage it.”
The JFSA has received advice to at least consider taking the government to court. Bates said the advice, if acted on, would be very expensive and take many years, for which the subpostmasters, who have fought for two decades, have little appetite. But Bates said there is another way. “[Our legal adviser] suggested that there might be a better, quicker and cheaper route to follow, a complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman.”
He said it is free to apply to the ombudsman, although there will be costs associated with building a case.
The submission has to be made by an MP and according to Bates, the JFSA already has a volunteer in the form of Labour MP for North Durham, Kevan Jones.
Conservative peer James Arbuthnot, previously MP for Hampshire North East, and a long-time campaigner for justice for the subpostmasters affected, said the government must face up to its own responsibility for the Horizon scandal: “It owns the Post Office and throughout the saga it has had a representative on the board and has been kept fully informed of what the Post Office was doing.
“And yet government ministers have been refusing to accept this responsibility. They say they have been misled by the Post Office when they were in a position and had a duty to satisfy themselves of the truth of what the Post Office was telling them. They pretend the relationship between the Post Office and government is an arm’s length one when clearly it is not.”
He added: “The government has a moral as well as a financial duty to stand behind what the Post Office has been doing, and to restore the subpostmasters to the position they would have been in had the Post Office – and the government – been behaving as they should. That requires full compensation. The subpostmasters who took the government to court have, as the government has acknowledged, done the government and Post Office a service in exposing financial and moral wrong-doing. They should not bear the cost of doing so. This is, as the Prime Minister has acknowledged, a scandal. The sooner the government puts it right, the better for all concerned, including the government.”
The ombudsman has the right to summon people and papers with powers analogous to those of a High Court judge. “So the names will be named and those who took decisions will have to defend what they did, or in many cases probably didn’t do, that finished up with us having to take the Post Office to the High Court,” said Bates.
If you want to support the subpostmasters taking on the government to redress their considerable grievances you can pledge here. The money is only paid once the target is met.
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.
- January 2020: Government should not be allowed to dismiss subpostmasters’ claims over Horizon IT scandal.
- January 2020: Police sent information about potential Fujitsu staff perjury in subpostmaster prosecutions.
- January 2020: Prosecutions are a significant step closer to being sent to the Court of Appeal as Criminal Courts Review Commission forms a group of commissioners to review them.
- January 2020: Alan Bates: The “details man” the Post Office paid the price for ignoring.
- February 2020: The government has refused to pay the huge legal costs subpostmasters incurred in their battle with the government-owned Post Office, which they won.
- February 2020: Members of Parliament seeking a public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal face huge challenges, but pressure and time could force justice.
- February 2020: Calls for inquiry into Post Office IT scandal increase in Parliament, with cross-party support.
- February 2020: Care Quality Commission to review concerns over Paula Vennells’ appointment after they were raised by a former NHS consultant psychiatrist.
- February 2020: Government admits it was too passive managing Post Office as parliamentary pressure builds.
- February 2020: Minister says Post Office IT experts misled the government when it asked questions about subpostmasters’ concerns over Horizon IT system.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson commits to “getting to the bottom of” Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Boris Johnson’s commitment to inquiry into Post Office scandal in doubt.
- March 2020: MPs call on PM to commit to full public inquiry into Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Those who did not play by the rules in Post Office Horizon scandal “should face prosecution”.
- March 2020: MPs told to hold to account those responsible for Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: The Post Office has sparked anger with secret settlements with subpostmasters outside the recent legal action against it.
- March 2020: Labour MP Karl Turner tells Computer Weekly that the Post Office Horizon scandal is the most grotesque version of predatory capitalism he has ever seen.
- March 2020: MP Kevan Jones has warned a government minister not to repeat the mistakes of predecessors in relation to the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.
- March 2020: Criminal Cases Review Commission to use Microsoft Teams to ensure review of subpostmaster prosecutions is held on time.
- March 2020: Post Office postpones subpostmaster compensation scheme amid Covid-19 crisis.
- March 2020: Meeting reviewing subpostmaster applications to appeal criminal prosecutions moves into second day.
- March 2020: Subpostmaster prosecutions to be considered by Court of Appeal for miscarriages of justice.
- March 2020: How subpostmasters made legal history with biggest referral of potential miscarriages of justice.
- April 2020: Met Police examines information about evidence given in court by Fujitsu staff on the Horizon IT system.
- May 2020: Subpostmasters who had their lives ruined by the Post Office’s faulty IT system have received their damages after a High Court victory.
- May 2020: A senior Post Office executive at the centre of an IT scandal, who tried to mislead a High Court judge in relation to it, has left the organisation without fanfare despite many years of service.
- May 2020: Post Office re-examines hundreds of prosecutions that could have resulted from faults in Horizon IT system.
- June 2020: A campaign group representing subpostmasters who were wrongly prosecuted for theft and false accounting by the Post Office is raising money to help clear the names of victims of the scandal
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