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Legal teams representing sub-postmasters and the Post Office in a legal dispute over allegations that a faulty IT system caused account shortfalls are meeting with a High Court judge today (19 October) to set out a case timetable.
This is an important point in a group action brought against the Post Office by more than 500 sub-postmasters, after it was approved by the High Court earlier this year. In the litigation sub-postmasters claim they have suffered as a result of a faulty Post Office accounting system.
This follows years of dispute. In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the plight of some sub-postmasters who had 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).
Today’s hearing will see the legal teams on both sides of the dispute meet with the managing judge to set a case timetable.
It will be decided, at the hearing, whether and how expert evidence, including computer/IT evidence, can be used as part of the case. Experts have been vocal in regards to the Horizon system following sub-postmaster allegations that losses could be down to faults in the system.
Computer evidence key in sub-postmaster case
Computer evidence is core to the case. In November 2015, Computer Weekly revealed that technicians supporting the Post Office’s Horizon IT system admitted there was a known software flaw that could lead to sub-postmasters submitting inaccurate accounts. Post Office IT support sent an email to a member of the postmasters’ branch of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) which revealed the flaw.
The Post Office also appointed, and paid for, forensic investigation firm Second Sight to investigate the alleged problems with Horizon raised by sub-postmasters. But after Second Sight’s 96-page report was published in April 2015, saying that the Post Office had been too quick to take legal action against sub-postmasters, the Post Office published an 83-page report of its own claiming that Second Sight’s claims were wrong.
The Second Sight report said: “As a result of our investigations, we have established that the Post Office’s investigators have, in many cases, failed to identify the underlying root cause of shortfalls prior to the initiation of civil recovery action or criminal proceedings. This includes cases where applicants brought to the auditors’ or investigators’ attention their own suspicions as to the underlying root causes of their branches’ losses.”
Post Office IT system under scrutiny
In 2015, Andy Clark, visiting professor in information security at Royal Holloway University of London and director at information security and expert witness company Primary Key Associates, told Computer Weekly that over 10 years ago he was called as a witness for the defence in a case brought by the Post Office against a sub-postmaster. After seeing the Post Office Horizon accounting system in action, he said it was quickly apparent there were questions to ask about its integrity. After asking the Post Office these questions, the Post Office dropped the case, he said.
The Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) is also looking at claims of wrongful prosecution of sub-postmasters. It has appointed a firm of forensic accountants to look into the Horizon IT system as part of its investigations.
Today’s High Court hearing will also decide whether extra time will be allowed to enable more sub-postmasters to be added to the action, what evidence will be produced by the parties, and when and whether test cases should be heard.
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.
- August 2017: Campaigners submit initial evidence in group litigation against Post Office over controversial Horizon IT system.