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Sub-postmasters were subjected to “a pattern of bullying and intimidation” by the Post Office over allegations that its Horizon computer system contained faults which led to financial shortfalls that were instead blamed on its users, according to evidence submitted as part of a group litigation.
Some 522 current and former sub-postmasters are taking legal action together against the Post Office, claiming to have suffered as a result of a faulty Post Office IT system. In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the plight of some sub-postmasters who received heavy fines and even jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they blamed on the Horizon operating system and supporting processes. The Post Office has vehemently denied this claim (see timeline below).
In March, the High Court approved a group litigation order (GLO) brought against the Post Office, and claimants have today (3 August 2017) submitted their first evidence in the case.
James Hartley, a partner at solicitor Freeths leading the group action, said: “The GLO will now enable the court to manage this large-scale litigation to an efficient and just conclusion. We are confident that this will enable the full extent of this systemic behaviour by Post Office Ltd to be brought to light, wrongdoers held to account, victims compensated and hopefully a broken Post Office Ltd culture mended.”
The court action follows years of campaigning by the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which was founded by Alan Bates, a sub-postmaster in Llandudno, north Wales, from 1998 to 2003. Bates has said he was affected by the alleged problems with Horizon, and that after years of campaigning, there was “no other option but to seek redress though the courts”.
“The case is now on an irreversible course to conclusion. Filing the first wave of evidence is an important milestone. Finally, we are on the path where Post Office Ltd will be called to account for its actions, and that will involve the cross-examination, under oath, of senior management of Post Office Ltd,” said Bates.
A spokesperson for the Post Office said: “The Post Office is defending this case. As we said when the group litigation order was made by the court earlier this year, we welcome it as offering the best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved. We will be continuing to address the allegations through the court’s processes and will not otherwise comment on the litigation while it is continuing.”
Read more about the Post Office
- The Post Office will this week present its defence against allegations brought by sub-postmasters in a group legal action.
- Initial hearing regarding sub-postmasters who say they were wrongly punished for false accounting reveals admission by Post Office legal team.
JFSA claimed a sample of sub-postmasters showed 83% believe they suffered ill health as a result of Post Office’s behaviour; 41% were advised, encouraged or felt pressured to resign; and 85% did not feel that the Horizon training adequately prepared them for all aspects of their role, while 95% found the Post Office helpline unhelpful.
“We expect these proceedings will reveal that Post Office Ltd began with a presumption of guilt. They aggressively interviewed sub-postmasters experiencing problems with the Horizon accounting system, telling them they were the only ones with these problems, locking them in darkened rooms and insisting on searching their homes.
Many were pressured to pay alleged balance shortfalls and to resign – often resulting in bankruptcy and loss of homes, as well as jobs. Some were even pressured to admit to false accounting and subjected to criminal prosecutions – even though there was no evidence or any proceeds of crime,” said Bates.
“It is outrageous that a government-owned entity engaged in a systemic pattern of bullying and threatening behaviour and did so without any oversight or sanction. This litigation isn’t just about money, but about lives being destroyed. The consequences of Post Office Ltd’s actions were devastating and include loss of homes and ability to earn an income, loss of reputation in their local communities, stress-related illness and, tragically, even death.”
Separately, the Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing 27 cases put forward by sub-postmasters who claim they did not get a fair trial. Two years on from the CCRC’s decision to look into the cases, forensic accountants were appointed in April this year to further investigate the claims.
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 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.
- March 2017: 1,000 sub-postmasters apply to join IT-related group litigation against Post Office.
- April 2017: Investigation into claims of miscarriages of justice in relation to a Post Office accounting system has appointed a forensic accountant firm.
- May 2017: Hundreds of sub-postmasters have applied to join IT-related legal action since March.
- July 2017: Post Office defence in computer system legal case due this week.
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