Sunday 25 November 2018

Bates v Post Office: Did the Post Office prosecute Subpostmasters in order to seize their assets?

On Day 9 of the Common Issues trial (21 November 2018), there was an exchange between Patrick Green, the claimants QC, and Helen Dickinson, Security Team Leader at the Post Office.

In her witness statement Ms Dickinson neatly explained how Subpostmasters find themselves in a pickle with Horizon.

"In my experience, a large majority of Subpostmasters are honest. Those that do commit acts of dishonesty are not necessarily "bad" and often don't have histories of dishonesty.... when completing their accounts, the Subpostmaster might record that a shortfall has been made good, without actually putting in the missing cash. This may be for something like the simple reasons that they have been unable to go to the bank to draw out the cash...."

she goes on to say:

"... at the next accounting point, the shortfall has grown, now bing the accumulation of the unsettled shortfall from the previous month and anything accrued in the current month. The shortgall to be made good is now larger and nobody and Post Office has noticed the shortage in the cash so the Subpostmaster does the same again. Throughout they are rationalising to themselves that they will correct the inconsistency later. This sequence continues for many weeks or month until the shortfall is so large the Subpostmaster can no longer afford to pay it. Also the accounts are now in a muddle because to cover up unpaid shortfalls, the Subpostmaster has to make more and more false entries in the accounts, eg by inputting false cash declarations. By this point it may be very difficult to separate the false entries for the real ones or, more importantly, to separate a loss caused by a genuine error and one caused by a false entry."

We know a number of Subpostmasters have been criminally prosecuted by the Post Office for false accounting and chased for their discrepancies under the Proceeds of Crime Act. It is something that Helen Dickinson herself as done. Ms Dickinson seemed like quite a nice person, if not one of the brightest tools in the box (she is a business fraud investigator and had never heard of the Enron scandal, one of the biggest business frauds of all time), and surprisingly incurious about what might be causing losses (she claimed to know very little about Horizon or how to interrogate it). 

Her job was to help get a prosecution of a Subpostmaster, and then go after their assets. The problems they may have had with Horizon didn't seem to concern her.

At the end of Ms Dickinson's evidence, Mr Green asked the question:

"Were there cases referred to the investigation team so that you could trace their assets through POCA?"

to which Ms Dickinson replied

"In some cases, yes."

This quote has not been checked against the agreed, signed-off transcript, and even then, the meaning might be ambivalent, but one interpretation of this question and answer was that Ms Dickinson was admitting that the Post Office sought criminal conviction in order to take Subpostmasters assets.

If that is what Ms Dickinson meant, m'learned friends at the Criminal Cases Review Commission might have one or two things to say about the convictions of 30 Subpostmasters they are currently considering.