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.
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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.”
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