Dmitry Nikolaev -

Pre-Horizon users contacting lawyers as more Post Office IT horror stories emerge

Lawyer says there is no reason to believe the Post Office treated unexplained shortfalls on systems prior to Horizon any differently to the way it dealt with unexplained Horizon shortfalls

Increasing numbers of former subpostmasters have now raised concerns about their experiences and suffering in relation to systems introduced to Post Office branches before the roll-out of the controversial Horizon system.

Since the Post Office Horizon scandal has entered the public discourse, following ITV’s Mr Bates vs the Post Office drama, increasing numbers of former subpostmasters have sought legal advice and not just those that used Horizon. The recent revelations have also led to former subpostmasters coming forward with complaints about a pre-Horizon system, known as Capture.

The Post Office has so far refused to give any details on the system, described by some former users as “a glorified spreadsheet”, or how many people were prosecuted or sacked based on its data, but it did say that anyone who believes they have suffered as a result of errors pre-Horizon should come forward.

According to Neil Hudgell, solicitor at Hudgell solicitors, which represents many subpostmasters, there is no reason to doubt that the Post Office’s approach to unexplained losses was any different to how it dealt with subpostmasters that suffered them when using Horizon, which included terminating their employment, forcing them to repay huge sums and prosecuting hundreds.

“Recent history and all the fresh revelations regarding Post Office, its culture and its practices have taught us to assume nothing,” he said. “The fact that we have a growing issue with unsafe prosecutions in the pre-2000 period really shouldn’t come as any sort of surprise. It is, though, deeply troubling to now learn that what we believed was a time-limited period from 2000 could stretch back a further five years and more, and possibly to the start of the ’90s. A deeply ingrained toxic culture could be even more ingrained and poisonous than we had thought.”

He said that since the ITV drama brought the scandal to the wider public, Hudgell has been contacted by many former users of Horizon, as well as about 20 that used systems before Horizon, including Capture and ICL Pathway, the pre-Horizon pilot. Four of these were prosecuted as a result of accounting shortfalls and many are the children of deceased former subpostmasters.

David Enright, a lawyer at Howe & Co solicitors – which represents victims of the scandal, too – said the company has also been contacted by a few former subpostmasters who used pre-Horizon systems.

Transparency promised

A Post Office spokesperson said: “We take very seriously any concerns raised about cases from before the Horizon system was first rolled out in 1999. We are investigating, including specific cases brought to our attention, and will transparently publish our findings.”

Meanwhile, Kevan Jones MP has written to government minister Kevin Hollinrake looking for answers why subpostmasters were blamed for errors caused when using software, known as Capture, in Post Office branches in the 1990s. He highlighted evidence that the Post Office knew the system was flawed but still blamed and even prosecuted subpostmasters when auditors found unexplained accounting shortfalls.

Computer Weekly spoke to subpostmasters who had used the Capture system pushed by the Post Office. They said they were left with little choice but to use the system to replace the manual processes that had served them well for decades, with no balancing issues.

Steve Lewis was a subpostmaster in South Wales. He had worked for the Post Office since 1983, originally as a counter clerk, and was a Post Office auditor for a number of years.

He became a subpostmaster in 1988, when he took on a former Crown branch, and was one of the branches in the early roll-out of the Capture software in 1994. “I was an ex-auditor and all my staff were competent people that had worked in large offices, but our balancing was horrendous after Capture was introduced,” said Lewis. “My retail network manager was no help and kept telling me to contact Capture helpline, which was a nightmare.

“He was told that my office was the only one having problems. It is so similar to what happened with Horizon, it’s frightening.”

As a former auditor, he was well known among the regional subpostmaster community, so he contacted various people and found many others were having problems. When he questioned Post Office managers about issues around balancing using Capture, he was told “don’t be a troublemaker”. He said he felt threatened by this.


When Capture was replaced by Horizon, a courtesy balance was completed that showed a loss and Lewis was suspended.

He lost his business, had to sell his home and suffered mental health issues with related relationship troubles. “I feel exposed again now, having put my story out there, which I thought was a good thing because I wanted people to know it wasn’t my fault.”

Lewis believes he was sacked because he had raised issues about the Capture system.

Sandi Broklehurst, who used Capture in her branch during the 1990s, said she identified glitches in the Capture system. “We had a very small Post Office and it worked fine,” she said. “But when we sold that Post Office and moved to a former Crown Office, we began having problems balancing.”

Broklehurst said she identified a glitch in the system related to paying pensions, creating a surplus which could also create losses. “Because they told us we were all using Capture and it was the best thing since sliced bread and didn’t make mistakes, I had phoned the regional office and threatened to sue. As a result, they sent me on a freebie weekend to discuss problems with Capture.”

She said that at the event there were “quite a lot” of people split into groups depending on the problems they had found. “I don’t know what the other groups discussed because there was no brainstorming,” said Broklehurst, adding that she is not aware of anybody being prosecuted using data from Capture and that Horizon came in soon after.

“They pushed us to use Capture,” she said.

Pressured into using Capture

Steve Marston, a former subpostmaster in Bury, Lancashire, was prosecuted in 1996 for theft and false accounting following an unexplained shortfall of nearly £80,000. He said he had never had any problems using the paper-based accounting system until his branch, which ran from 1973, began using the Capture system.

“We were pushed into using it by the Post Office in 1996,” he said, describing it as a standalone system that required subpostmasters to buy their own computers to run the software. Marston added that he felt pressured into using the system at a time when many branches were being closed by the Post Office.

“It was a choice of moving to this system or remaining with the manual system and risk closure,” he said. “I had no problems for 20 years using manual accounting processes, but within two years of using Capture, I ran up a debt of £79,000.”

Marston said he didn’t inform the Post Office because he thought he was making mistakes and that it would correct itself. He was not experienced with computers and believed they could not make mistakes.

“Computers had just come out and I was under the impression that computers can’t make mistakes,” said Marston. “Every time I had a loss, I thought it must be me – that I made a mistake even though I hadn’t for over 20 years.”

He covered the losses with his own money, but it kept getting “worse and worse”.

After an audit revealed a loss he couldn’t fully cover out of his own pocket, he was advised to plead guilty of theft and fraud to avoid jail. The judge took into account two bravery awards Marston had previously received for standing up to armed robbers, saving him a jail sentence. He received a 12-month suspended sentence, lost his home and business, and went bankrupt.

Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see below a timeline of all articles since 2009).

Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

Watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary, Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The real story

Timeline: Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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