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KC names Post Office staff he believes conspired to pervert the course of justice

Leading KC names Post Office staff he believes perverted the course of justice when crushing subpostmasters in court

Post Office staff “suppressed” and “withheld” evidence that would have supported the case of a subpostmaster who they set out to crush to set an example to others.

In his closing statement of phase four of the statutory public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal, Edward Henry KC, representing victims of the scandal on behalf of solicitors Hodge, Jones & Allen, referred to the civil case against Lee Castleton in 2006.

When Castleton’s branch in Bridlington showed a loss of £26,000 that he could not explain, the Post Office demanded that Castleton covered the shortfall. He was so concerned about the debt that he refused to pay it back, and decided to go to court to contest the Post Office’s insistence that he should pay.

The Post Office took Castleton to the High Court to recover the phantom losses and spent around £300,000 doing so. Castleton represented himself and the judge 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.

He was made bankrupt and he and his family suffered extreme hardship and mental health issues. Castleton was one of the first seven former subpostmasters to contact Computer Weekly about the problems in 2008.

In his phase four closing written statement, Henry said Castleton “was destined to become a victim in Post Office’s ruthless determination to acquire a precedent”.

The strategy was to put his “head on a spike”, according to one lawyer – a strategy to deter other challenges to the Horizon system because the Post Office knew that its strategy to prosecute subpostmasters to recover unexplained shortfalls would fail if errors were widely known.

Post Office lawyers and investigators knew that there were errors and deliberately withheld evidence of them that were revealed in a previous civil action in 2001, concerning a branch in Cleveleys, Lancashire.

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” in 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.”

The Post Office’s lawyers tried to get him to change his evidence – when he refused, they dropped the case, paid off the subpostnaster and made her sign a non-disclosure agreement. Read here for more about how Coyne outsmarted the Post Office to get to the truth after inspection “madness”.

During a phase four hearing Mandy Talbot, a Post Office lawyer working on the case against Castleton at the time, said that 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 the Cleveleys branch was an “isolated case”.

Henry said Post Office legal and investigations employees at the time – Keith Baines, Mandy Talbot, Tony Utting, Graham Ward, Rod Ismay and others – together conspired to pervert the course of justice by pursuing a debt claim on behalf of the Post Office against Castleton.

He added that staff at Fujitsu “conspired together, and with others, to pervert the course of justice by distorting and concealing evidence relevant to the claim being brought by the Post Office against Castleton”.

Fujitsu’s current head of Europe admitted in a recent inquiry hearing that the IT company missed an opportunity to take action and prevent subpostmasters from being wrongly convicted for financial crimes.

Henry wrote that former Fujitsu tech expert Anne Chambers committed perjury when testifying in the court case, by “agreeing not to mention the Known Error Log, and obscuring the potential for there to have been errors in [Castleton’s branch] accounts”. Chambers is currently under investigation, for potential perjury, by the Metropolitan Police, along with former Fujitsu tech boss Gareth Jenkins. More information about the known error logs, first revealed by Computer Weekly, can be found here.

Last month, in his closing remarks for phase four, Tim Moloney KC, also representing subpostmasters, on behalf of Hudgell’s Solicitors, described the shocking revelations of the inquiry phase, which has exposed the malpractice of Post Office and external lawyers, as well as investigators. He said: “It is only when the tide goes out that you can see who has been swimming naked.”

Moloney said there is enough evidence for a criminal investigation into the Post Office staff involved in prosecutions.

Sam Stein, a KC representing former subpostmasters for Howe & Co solicitors, said that phase four of the inquiry has revealed many former and current staff to be “liars and amnesiacs” with a disdain for subpostmasters. He described the witnesses as “a rogues’ gallery”.

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 timeline below of all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal).

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

Also watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story.

Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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