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The high court judge presiding over the legal battle between the Post Office and sub-postmasters, who allege they have suffered as a result of a faulty computer system, has warned legal teams to cooperate.
Last month, the trial dates for the group litigation were set, with the first month-long trial set to take place in November 2018, followed by another in March 2019.
In the litigation, sub-postmasters claim they have suffered because of a faulty Post Office accounting system. 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 Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) in September 2009 to campaign for sub-postmasters.
Large and complicated legal case
In a court document, the judge described the case as large and complicated due to the number of claimants and the underlying dispute over the accounting system.
“Quite apart from the fact that there are, as at the date of this ruling, over 500 claimants, the technical subject matter of the Horizon system is likely to be complex, and permission has already been granted for expert evidence in this field,” said Fraser.
Judge calls for cooperation
The judge described some of the lack of cooperation in the case so far: “The following have all occurred so far in this group litigation: failing to respond to proposed directions for two months; failing even to consider e-disclosure questionnaires; failing to lodge required documents with the court; failing to lodge documents in good time; refusing to disclose obviously relevant documents; resisting any extension to the ‘cut-off’ date for entries of new claimants on the group register; and threatening pointless interlocutory skirmishes.”
He added that this had been “more or less” equal on both sides: “Such behaviour simply does not begin to qualify as either cost-effective, efficient, or being in accordance with the over-riding objective. A fundamental change of attitude by the legal advisers involved in this group litigation is required. A failure to heed this warning will result in draconian costs orders.”
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.
Read more on Business applications
Subpostmasters told to expect decision on alleged unfair prosecutions in August
Connectivity problem hits thousands of Post Office branches
Criminal Courts Review Commission findings in Post Office computer case raise further enquiries
Forensic investigation into Post Office IT system at centre of legal case nears completion