Amnesia hides names of individuals behind Post Office’s ‘head on a spike’ strategy

Former Post Office lawyer deflects individual responsibility for a strategy that crushed subpostmasters, blaming the organisation as a whole

Lawyers are attempting to identify the source of the Post Office’s legal strategy that destroyed the life of a subpostmaster who raised questions about the reliability of its Horizon computer system.

Last week, Mandy Talbot, a former Post Office lawyer at the centre of a legal battle designed to silence a subpostmaster, was repeatedly asked by barristers in a Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry hearing to name people who had given direction on the strategy. But again and again she said the direction had come from “Post Office Limited” and failed to remember a single individual involved in the strategy.

The Post Office’s method to silence former subpostmaster Lee Castleton didn’t just achieve this objective, but destroyed his and his family’s lives. The Post Office spent over £320,000 on a civil court action to retrieve £26,000 in unexplained shortfalls at his Post Office branch in Bridlington, North Yorkshire.

During a High Court trial in 2006, where Castleton represented himself, the Post Office failed to disclose evidence that would have supported his claims that the shortfalls were caused by Horizon errors, not him or his staff.

The case in 2006 was used as an example by the Post Office to deter others from challenging it over Horizon system errors.

Barristers at the public inquiry are seeking many answers as they attempt to connect the dots on how the Post Office went about blaming subpostmasters for accounting shortfalls and how it covered up its malfeasance.

Whose idea was it?

In an inquiry hearing last week, one question stood out, with repeated attempts by inquiry barristers and those representing victims of the scandal to find the answer: Who came up with the strategy to crush Castleton in court to set an example to others who might dare to challenge the Post Office’s false claim that the Horizon system was reliable at all times?

Castleton had his “head put on a spike” to deter other subpostmasters from challenging the Post Office, according to his barrister, Flora Page.

Computer Weekly first reported on the problems with the Fujitsu-supplied Horizon system in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters whose lives were ruined when they were blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below).

One of the subpostmasters first interviewed was Castleton. When, in 2004, his branch showed a loss of £26,000 that he could not explain, the Post Office demanded that Castleton make up the shortfall. He always said the losses in his accounts were caused by computer errors, but he had no way of proving this at the time and refused to pay it back.

The Post Office threw everything at the legal challenge brought by Castleton, and the court ruled that the debt was real, not illusory as Castleton argued. Post Office witnesses in his case said there was no evidence of any problem with the system, and that they were unable to identify any basis upon which the Horizon system could have caused Castleton’s losses.

The judge in Castleton’s case awarded the Post Office damages of approximately £26,000, the amount of the unexplained loss, and costs of £321,000. He was made bankrupt and his family have since suffered huge financial hardship and emotional trauma.

It has emerged in the public inquiry that the Post Office sought to use the Castleton case to “send a clear message” to other subpostmasters that it would take a firm line on those raising similar allegations.

In March, during a public inquiry hearing, barrister Page quoted a Post Office document outlining legal advice to defeat Castleton in court and claim heavy costs “'... not to make a net financial recovery but to defend the Horizon System and hopefully send a clear message to other subpostmasters that the Post Office will take a firm line and to deter others from raising similar allegations'”.

Page told the inquiry in March: “So that was the purpose. It was not ever envisaged that the Post Office would actually get that costs order back. That was a loss leader, if you like. The purpose was to send a firm line and a clear message to deter others.”

She said Castleton “lost everything he’d invested in his branch, he lost his living, his family were treated like thieves, and they endured years of hardship”.

Following the revelations in March, Castleton demanded the names of the Post Office executives who had crushed him to suffocate the truth. “I want the name of the person who decided to do this to be made public by the inquiry, because that person made terrible decisions that caused so many consequences to my family,” he told Computer Weekly.

Convenient memory loss

The strategy to silence subpostmasters included withholding evidence from courts, evidence that would have rendered the Post Office’s argument that Horizon was reliable defunct.

So far, attempts to find out the names of the individuals behind this strategy have been hindered by the memory loss of those being questioned.

During a recent hearing, Mandy Talbot, former Post Office legal case manager, who also went by the title of principal lawyer (civil), was questioned about her involvement in the Post Office’s legal battle with Castleton.

Talbot had also been involved in an earlier case regarding Cleveleys Post Office in Lancashire. This dispute, which saw another subpostmaster challenge the reliability of Horizon, ended in an out of court settlement and the subpostmaster signing a confidentiality agreement.

In 2001, the Post Office was suing the subpostmaster, Julie 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 that 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 purpose and that “the [Post Office] is in breach of this term in that the computer system provided was unfit for purpose and [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.”

But a report jointly commissioned by both parties in the run-up to the court hearing, raised significant questions about the Horizon system.

Jason Coyne, then of Best Practice Group, was an independent IT expert appointed by both parties to investigate the system. He was only given access to logs of helpdesk calls made by Wolstenholme to attempt to ascertain if computer errors were causing her problems.

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.

Coyne wrote 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.”

During last week’s inquiry hearing, Talbot, a trained lawyer, said she did not think evidence about computer problems in Coyne’s report was relevant in Castleton’s case about alleged problems with Horizon, and Post Office’s denial of them, claiming she thought Cleveleys was an “isolated case”.

Talbot’s name also featured in an email from Fujitsu executive Jan Holmes to a colleague in 2004, describing a conversation between himself and Talbot regarding the Cleveleys Post Office case and her wish to prevent details of it going public.

“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,” wrote Holmes, 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.”

Inquiry barrister Julian Blake put it to Talbot last week that the Post Office had an independent jointly appointed expert describing its stance on the robustness of Horizon as being wrong and asked: “Do you think it might have been worth, during that period of time, to have told more people within the Post Office?”

Talbot said: “It was expressed to be a preliminary report. I viewed it as a case in isolation.”

During questioning in the public inquiry in July, Susanne Helliwell, a solicitor acting for the 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.

Inquiry barristers repeatedly asked Talbot who was behind this strategy and she repeatedly said it was “Post Office Limited” and was unable to remember individuals.

While questioning Talbot in the inquiry, Sam Stein KC, representing scandal victims, said: “…you said this earlier: no idea where that direction would have come from”.

“Now, Mrs Talbot, you don’t come across, if I may say so, as someone that seems to be having any problems with your memory. So the large number of people that I represent are finding it very hard to believe that you cannot recall where you got this direction from. Is it your evidence that you simply can’t remember who told you what the Post Office line was? Is that actually your evidence?”

Talbot replied: “The line would have come from [Post Office Limited] as an organisation. There were many different managers in that organisation, and I was given instructions by many people during the course of litigation. Can I put my hand on my heart and come up with a name of a person? I’m afraid I can’t. I wish I could, for the subpostmasters who you represent.”

In reference to Talbot’s memory loss, Page, also acting for people affected by the scandal said: “There would be little point in putting documents to you and asking you who gave you instructions in the Castleton case because you won’t tell, will you?”

Talbot replied: “It’s not that I won’t tell, it’s that I cannot recall, after this period of time, and it was a revolving selection of managers within Post Office Limited.”

Page put it to Talbot that “somebody needed to approve the expenditure of £321,000 in legal costs for the sake of a precedent”. She asked for “at least” the name of a department.

“I cannot [remember] after this period of time, I’m sorry,” said Talbot.

Page said: “There was a clear advantage to your own department, wasn’t there, because by bankrupting Mr Castleton, you could threaten other subpostmasters who disputed Horizon shortfalls ... with the same fate, couldn’t you?”

Talbot replied: “I didn’t run a department, and it was an advantage for Post Office Limited, not myself or my colleagues.”

Subpostmasters gaslighted

Thousands of subpostmasters were forced to pay for unexplained shortfalls in their accounts, many were bankrupted and hundreds were prosecuted, with about 200 sent to jail. All this was the result of computer errors causing phantom losses for which they were blamed.

The Post Office did everything it could to silence those subpostmasters who complained and raised questions about the reliability of Horizon, which was supplied by Fujitsu. Following the computer system’s introduction in 2000, to automate Post Office branch accounting, subpostmasters who challenged the accuracy of the Horizon computer system were told by the Post Office that they were the only one experiencing problems.

It was only in 2009, after Computer Weekly revealed the problems with the Horizon system and the subsequent establishment of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group, that they knew they were not alone in experiencing problems with the Horizon software.

Read all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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