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The group action brought by sub-postmasters against the Post Office will see two trials in the High Court, with the first set for November 2018.
The dates were decided at a meeting with a High Court judge earlier this month, which was held to set out a case timetable.
In the litigation, sub-postmasters claim they have suffered because of a faulty Post Office accounting system. The allegations include false imprisonment and fines for miscounting, which sub-postmasters blame on the Post Office’s Horizon accounting system.
This follows more than a decade of campaigning by the Justice For Sub-postmasters Alliance (JFSA). In May 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the plight of some sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines and even jail sentences 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).
Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates, who worked at the post office in Llandudno, north Wales from 1998 to 2003, set up the JFSA in September 2009 to campaign for sub-postmasters.
The first month-long trial will take place in November 2018, followed by another in March 2019.
The first hearing will establish the legal relationship between the Post Office and sub-postmasters. As part of this, solicitors on both sides will identify 12 lead claimants, out of whom a group of six will be chosen as lead (or sample) cases at the trial, with 20 days set aside for hearing evidence.
The second trial will focus on on matters such as the behaviour of the Post Office towards sub-postmasters, many of whom allege bullying and false imprisonment, for example.
The Post Office has said it will defend the case vigorously. “We are continuing to address the allegations through the court’s processes and will not otherwise comment on specific details,” it said.
“We believe the group litigation order made earlier this year offers the best opportunity for the matters in dispute to be heard and resolved. We have confidence in the Horizon system, which is robust, reliable and used across 11,600 branches by postmasters, agents and their many thousands of staff, to process six million transactions successfully every day, including on behalf of the UK’s high-street banks.”
The judge presiding over the group action, Justice Fraser, also allowed extra time to enable more sub-postmasters to be added to the action. There are currently 522 claimants in the group, but about 70 more sub-postmasters are seeking to join the action.
Sub-postmasters, including assistants, managers, Crown Office employees and temporary sub-postmasters, who want to join the action should contact Freeths, the legal advisers to the JFSA, by the end of 10 November 2017 if they want to be included in the action.
Separately, the Criminal Courts Review Commission 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.
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.
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.
December 2014: MPs to debate sub-postmaster IT injustice claims.
May 2015: IT system related to sub-postmaster prosecutions under review by CCRC.
October 2015: James Arbuthnot takes Post Office IT fight to House of Lords.
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