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The High Court has approved the group litigation order (GLO) brought against the Post Office by sub-postmasters who allege they have been wrongly punished for computer errors. About 1,000 people have now applied to take part in the action.
In January, a High Court judge granted the GLO, which has now been approved by the president of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court.
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the stories of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon operating system and its supporting processes.
The action, instigated by the Justice For Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group, has attracted about 1,000 sub-postmasters who want to join the action. Not all will do so, but there will be an increase on the 198 sub-postmasters currently involved.
The action focuses on the true nature of the contract between the sub-postmasters and the Post Office in terms of the Horizon system, and the way in which the Post Office has dealt with alleged shortfalls.
Alan Bates of the JFSA said: “As well as a court finding of responsibility, the claimant group will be seeking appropriate financial compensation in respect of loss and damage suffered.”
The Post Office denies the claims, and when the GLO was granted in January, it said it “welcomed the progress made" but said it will not otherwise comment on live litigation.
Sub-postmasters have until 26 July to join the action before the cut-off that prevents new claimants joining the claim.
The claim also seeks to establish whether sub-postmasters were put under duress by the Post Office when they signed off incorrect accounts or when they resigned, said Bates. “We are looking to establish that the Post Office acted unconscionably, in other words harshly, oppressively or beyond what would be considered normal commercial bargaining,” he said. “If that was the case, we will seek to establish whether this has a bearing on either the signing of the accounts or forced resignations.”
Bates added: “There are concerns that individuals may have been unlawfully harassed and also whether the Post Office can be held liable for damages in terms of the stigma created around the affected sub-postmasters, for their loss of reputation and the stress caused as a result of these serious breaches of legal obligations.”
Separately, the Criminal Cases Review Commission is also reviewing prosecutions of sub-postmasters for account shortfalls and is looking at 30 claims of wrongful prosecution.
Post Office Horizon: Timeline of events
- 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 sub-postmasters 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 that 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 sub-postmaster claims against Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
- October 2013: Former Lord Justice of Appeal Hooper joins Post Office Horizon investigation.
- November 2013: 150 sub-postmasters 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 sub-postmaster IT injustice claims.
- December 2014: MP accuses Post Office of acting “duplicitously” in IT investigation.
- January 2015: MPs force inquiry into Post Office sub-postmaster mediation scheme.
- January 2015: Post Office faces grilling by MPs over Horizon accounting system.
- February 2015: Post Office CIO would talk to any sub-postmaster 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 sub-postmasters’ claims of wrongful prosecution.
- May 2015: IT system related to sub-postmaster 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 sub-postmasters 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 sub-postmasters 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 sub-postmasters will take their case to the next stage.
- January 2017: The group action against the Post Office that alleges sub-postmasters have been wrongly punished for accounting errors gets a green light from the High Court of Justice.