Post Office tried to convince independent IT witness that he was wrong about Horizon

‘Delusional’ Post Office tried to influence an expert witness and get him to change his view about IT evidence which was detrimental to its case against a subpostmaster

The Post Office unsuccessfully tried to convince an independent expert IT witness that he was wrong when his report put its case against a subpostmaster in doubt and it ended the action, settling with the defendant when he refused to change his view.

During a recent hearing in the Post Office Horizon scandal statutory public inquiry, it was revealed that the Post Office tried to influence independent IT witness to convince him to change his views.

The expert IT witness, Jason Coyne, then of Best Practice Group, described the Post Office’s opinion that almost all accounting errors in computer systems are caused by user error, to be “quite delusional”.

The statutory public inquiry was set up to ascertain how and why subpostmasters were wrongly blamed and punished for accounting discrepancies in their branches.

After the introduction of software from Fujitsu in 2000 to automate mainly manual practices in Post Office branches, subpostmasters began to see unexplained shortfalls in their accounts. They were subsequently blamed for these shortfalls, which didn’t actually exist, and made to repay them. More than 700 were prosecuted for financial crimes, with many serving prison sentences. Thousands more suffered life-changing hardship as a result of failed businesses and repaying unexplained shortfalls.

In 2003, Coyne was appointed as a joint expert witness for both the Post Office, and the defendant Julie Wolstenholme, who was subpostmaster at the Post Office Branch in Cleveleys, Lancashire.

In 2001, the Post Office was suing Wolstenholme for the return of equipment used in the branch after her contract was terminated, but she said her employment was terminated unlawfully in a counterclaim which raised questions about the reliability of the Horizon computer system used in branches. The counterclaim, made by the subpostmaster who had suffered major problems with the Horizon system, was for damages related to unfair dismissal. It stated that it was an “implied term” her contract with the Post Office that the computer system provided by them would be fit for its purpose and that “the [Post Office] is in breach of this term in that the computer system provided was unfit for purpose and the [it] failed to ensure that the system was working adequately”.

In a reply in court documents, the Post Office said: “It is denied that the said computer system was unfit for its purpose and it is averred that the same worked adequately.”

Coyne was only given access to logs of helpdesk calls made by Wolstenholme to attempt to ascertain if computer errors were causing her problems, because audit data had been destroyed due to the time that had lapsed.

In his report, Coyne said 63 of the calls were “without doubt” related to system failures, either hardware, software or interfaces, and only 13 of the calls he looked at “could or should” have been considered as Wolstenholme requesting help or guidance.

In his report conclusion he wrote: “So, I say that the technology installed at Cleveleys was clearly defective in elements of its hardware, software or interfaces, and that the majority of the errors in the fault logs could not be the making of Ms Wolstenholme.”

Coyne said it was “often absolutely obvious” that there had to be a technical problem that should be looked at, adding: “There consistently appears to be, within Fujitsu and/or Post Office, a reluctance to ever really grasp the analysis of the issue and to look at it.”

Evidence in the inquiry hearing also revealed a response to Coyne’s report from former Fujitsu IT executive Steve Parker. He told Fujitsu executive Jan Holmes that almost all accounting errors in computer systems are caused by user error, which Coyne told the inquiry was “quite a delusional view”.

The Post Office was given legal advice at the time that “in view of the negative expert’s report in this case regarding the computer system in place” the Post Office’s claim against Wolstenholme would be likely to fail.

An email from  Fujitsu’s Holmes to a colleague in June 2004 gave an account of a conversation he had with  Mandy Talbot, a senior lawyer at the Post Office. This followed Wolstenholme rejecting a settlement with a trial date set.

“The Post Office are still taking advice as to how best to deal with this and [Mandy Talbot’s] view/belief was that the safest way to manage this is to throw money at it and to get a confidentiality agreement signed,” he wrote, adding that the Post Office was determined to keep evidence of Horizon problems secret. “[Mandy] is not happy with the ‘expert’s’ report as she considers it to be not well balanced and wants, if possible, to keep it out of the public domain. This is unlikely to happen if it goes to court.”

During questioning in the public inquiry, Susanne Helliwell, solicitor acting for Post Office in the Cleveleys case, admitted that the Post Office was eager to prevent publicity of the dispute  and not set a precedent that could see other subpostmasters challenging the system when they suffered losses.

Subpostmasters who challenged the accuracy of the Horizon computer system were told by the Post Office that they were the only one experiencing problems. Helliwell was asked whether the suppression of Coyne’s report was a “cover-up.” She said: “It wasn’t a matter of covering up because Ms Wolstenholme could have told anybody about the findings of the report.”

The Post Office continued to deny that there were Horizon errors that could cause unexplained accounting shortfalls right up until it conceded the fact during a High Court trial in 2018/19.

Coyne was used as an expert witness in that High Court group litigation order of Bates and others versus the Post Office. Bates fronted a group of subpostmasters which successfully sued the Post Office after proving that the Horizon system contained errors that could cause unexplained accounting shortfalls.

The plight of some subpostmasters was first reported by Computer Weekly in 2009, when it revealed that the lives of some had been turned upside-down after being fined, sacked, made bankrupt or even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls.

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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