Thursday, 31 January 2019

Justice delayed

Rollsing Rollsing Rollsing...
The judge in the Post Office group litigation has told a Case Management Conference at the High Court Rolls Building today that his judgment on the Common Issues trial, which finished on Thursdau 6 December, will now not be released until the final day of February at the earliest.

Mr Justice Fraser had told the court he wanted to hand down his findings at the end of January, but the judgment isn't finished. He gave no reasons for the delay or why it would take at least a full month longer to complete. He put the claimants and the defendant on notice that they would receive the draft judgment in "late" February.

The notification of the delay came at the end of a morning's legal argument about the third trial of this group litigation. The judge ordered this will begin on Monday 4 November and will last four weeks.

We also got a little closer to understanding what the third trial would be about. The judge today directed (in the face of some resistance from the Post Office) it will be about some of the outstanding issues which weren't covered by the Common Issues trial and won't be in the forthcoming Horizon trial. I haven't seen the skeleton arguments from either party so I don't know what those outstanding issues are or will be, but the claimants' QC, Mr Patrick Green was very keen to get alleged issues of deceit, concealment and fraud by the Post Office into the third trial.

Whether he will succeed or not will be played out between the QCs as they meet up to discuss things next week. If the QCs cannot come to an agreement, they will each draw up a list and the judge will decide which issues the trial will cover at the next case management conference on Tuesday 12 February.

Round three

The judge also wants both parties to decide whether or not the third trial will need Lead Claimants and whether or not those lead claimants will be the same as the lead claimants in the Common Issues trial. If new lead claimants are to be selected, he needs to know how many new lead claimants both sides are proposing and he wants them to agree the mechanism for selecting those claimants by the date of the next CMC.

It is almost certain a fourth trial will now take place in Spring 2020.

Reading the above must be hugely disappointing for those who were hoping a judgment on last year's Common Issues trial was imminent, but it's now going to arrive very close to the start of the Horizon trial, which begins on 11 March.

Newsworthy findings might stoke wider media interest in the next chapter of this very long and very drawn out legal story.

Read today's full live tweets here.

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Secret email to follow tonight. If you want to subscribe to that - please put any cash you can afford in the tip jar, which is on the right hand nav bar of this website. All major cards accepted...

It looks like I am going to be following this group litigation for at least another year. Every pound you give (after PayPal take their cut) will go towards helping me report it effectively. Thank you!

Case Management Conference live tweets

Hi all - live tweets of today's proceedings below. Read the originals on twitter here, or read the thread on thread reader here. Or just read down...

Mr Patrick Green and Judge discussing October’s trial. PG apologises for documents going to the wrong place. J says a couple of years in and he’s sure the documents will go where they should eventually.

Just a note - nothing in these tweets is a direct quote unless it is in direct quotes. These tweets are paraphrases and summaries of what is going on. And they will be infrequent as I try to pull out the nuggets from the legal to-ing and fro-ing.
#postofficetrial

If you want to know why I am in court, do have a look at postofficetrial.com - it has the whole story.
#postofficetrial

October’s trial might not be October’s trial at this rate… it could be December. 

I am told some group litigations can take 5 years...

The third trial (previously known as October’s trial) doesn’t yet have a name. It was being called the “Breach” trial during the Common Issues trial.

Mr David Cavender QC for the Post Office on his feet.
Argument is about how many lead cases the third trial should have as well as the number of experts and the date.

There are at least three journalists in court, which must be some sort of record for a CMC. I did warn them.

Circular discussion which still hasn’t been resolved since the last trial - it is in the interests of doing things thoroughly to try as few claimants as possible in the third trial. However the fewer you do, the fewer issues they have which are relevant to the wider claimant pool

Everyone agreed on this. Ideas for how to resolve it not yet aired.

PO QC: this is what happens in any group litigation.
J: It’s what’s happening in THIS litigation.

The claimants proposed solution is to try more issues in third trial rather than individual cases. PO QC calls this “not very well thought through"

We are already one journalist down.

J: "I consider a round three trial in the autumn of 2019 not only to be a good idea, but to be essential."

J also says a 5 week trial (as opposed to a 10 week trial) is the best balance between cost, effectiveness and resolution.

So we’re going to have a 5 week trial in the autumn. But we are no nearer to what its content will be than we were in December. So how is judge going to move this forward?

J rejects PO’s argument that third trial should be of two individual claimants. It will instead be (subject to informed debate between the parties) on a group of issues. Claimants very keen to get alleged issues of deceit, concealment and fraud by PO into the third trial.

J notes no agreement about what third trial involves or which claimants should be involved. today’s CMC was meant to be all about third trial and yet there’s no agreement between the parties at all about what form it should take….

… However J has now decided it will be on a group of issues.

J so you want third trial to happen in the autumn and you want it to be around other issues not yet agreed to maximum resolution, and you want to spend the next 7 days discussing what those issues are and if you can’t agree you come back to me?
PG Yes.

J turns to PO QC.
DC: My lord I think it is a terrible idea.
[he goes on to explain why]

J going through PO plan. Resolving 2 cases in trial three, then 16 cases in trial 4 in 2020. Judge’s tone suggests he is not happy with this proposal.

J Suggests this means no resolution for the first claimants till 2020.
PO QC says J's got low expectations of what might come out of third trial. It will inform many other claimants’ cases.
J I think is pushing for a re-run of first trial format except with different issues and potentially new lead claimants.
J about to make an order.

Third trial (now called R3) scheduled for 8 Oct. J wonders if this is too soon given we appear to be starting from scratch.
PG asks for November start.
PO QC agrees.

Okay so date of third trial R3 (this was first raised during the first week of the Common Issues trial in November last year. it’s taken more than two months to get to this)...

Third trial will start on 4 November and last for four weeks. That is now an order. Finally.

Judge adjourns rest of CMC till Tue 12 Feb

J: you must agree a list of issues to be identified in R3 and whether there are issues of fact involved and therefore how many lead claimants needed. If you can’t agree I need a list from both of you and I will make a decision.

J also orders the two QCs to meet and actually spend some time together to try to resolve their issues.

PG QC: We are quite good at that now.

PO QC asking judge to order a proposals list of lead claimants for R3 and set up a selection process for those claimants. And that that selection criteria process should start now.
J you will agree list of issues in R3, which of the existing lead claimants can be used in R3 and..

… if there are any new lead claimants to be added the selection criteria for choosing the new lead claimants.

J turns to judgment of Common Issues trial. 

Had hoped it would be end Jan, but it isn’t finished. Current plan is draft will be with parties in late Feb. J says it will not be handed down [made public]...

… AT LEAST before the last day in Feb.

J has asked that both the Post Office and claimants liaise transparently with the press to ensure all parties are aware of the date the judgment will be handed down as soon as it is known. Both QCs agree.

Judge rises. CMC over. Alan Bates, head of the JFSA has just walked over to me. He’s asked that I let people know that the two conferences he was planning to hold with claimants in Feb will now be postponed until the judgment has been handed down.

Oh well.

That concludes todays tweets from #postofficetrial

Full write-up will be on the blog postofficetrial.com as soon as I can.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Parliamentary questions

On 24 January, Gill Furniss, Labour MP for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough and Shadow Minister for Steel, Consumer Protection and Postal Services, put down two written parliamentary questions. They follow the written question put down by Lord Arbuthnot in the House of Lords on 19 November.

Ms Furniss's questions were as follows:

1: "To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, what recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Post Offices' [sic] Horizon IT system; and if he will make a statement." 

2: "To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, how many prosecutions the Post Office has made against Sub Post Masters over the Post Offices IT Horizon system; and if he will make a statement."

On 29 January these questions received the same, word-for-word responses from Kelly Tolhurst, Conservative MP for Rochester and Strood, and Gill Furniss's opposite number at BEIS:

"While the Government sets the strategic direction for the Post Office, it allows the company the commercial freedom to deliver its strategy and operate as an independent business. The Horizon IT system and management of the branch network are operational matters for Post Office Limited. Paula Vennells, the Group Chief Executive of Post Office Limited, will write to the hon. Member on these matters. A copy of her reply will be placed in the Libraries of the House."

So Paula Vennells will be required to answer:

1: What recent assessment of the effectiveness of Horizon has been made.
2: How many prosecutions have been made against Subpostmasters over the Horizon system.

I can imagine the first answer will be a load of blee about continuous assessment unless there was a specific reason for framing the question in that way. The second answer might be more interesting. I think from memory the Post Office say they don't hold records going back to the advent of Horizon.

Many times whilst following this story I've been asked by other journalists about the number of annual prosecutions of Subpostmasters in the (say) ten years leading up to the introduction of Horizon and the ten years after, but FOI requests have not produced the answer. Let's see if a shadow minister can find out.

My thanks to Mike for alerting me to the above questions being asked!

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There is a case management conference taking place at the High Court Rolls Building tomorrow. I will be in attendance. During this conference, the date on which the Common Issues trial judgment will be handed down is going to be "addressed".  Secret email subscribers will get the usual full service, but there will be plenty to read and see on this blog and on twitter.

Please consider donating via the website PayPal tip jar if you can. The only reason I can afford to report from court is because of the support of people who have donated. Thank you to those who already have.




Thursday, 24 January 2019

"The horror of that whole Post Office fiasco was a major factor in her death."

When I read this article in Forecourt Trader magazine, I couldn't quite believe it. I've come across grim stories in the past, but this one seemed worse than most, particularly with regard to the alleged behaviour of Post Office staff on the ground.

I contacted Phil. He kindly wrote a personal account of his experience for this blog and showed me the corroborating documentation he had available. Phil is a claimant in the group litigation, and many of his files are now held by the Freeths, the claimants' solicitors.

I am satisfied it is Phil's honestly-held belief that the events he describes below happened as he tells them.
Phil Cowan
"I used to be based in Edinburgh and was a reasonably successful businessman. I had multiple interests including a number of Shell service stations (back when there was still money in it), a Cash Converter and a valeting company. I was also slowly building a property portfolio.

With further diversification in mind I bought a post office on Parson's Green Terrace in Edinburgh and we opened on 5 Feb 2001.

The office had a sizeable retail area and the idea was that Fiona, my other half, would in due course, take over the running of the office allowing me to exploit the healthy Post Office footfall for retail purposes. I'd already had many years experience in this area via my service station outlets..

I would be keeping a watchful eye, whilst taking care of my other business commitments.

This was all made clear to the Post Office in my business plan, which I still have.

As the registered Subpostmaster, I needed to learn the ropes and fully satisfy myself that I was a capable 'buck-stop'.

Crash course

I prepared myself for some hefty training.

I received ONE week!

The Post Office rep who supposedly trained me then flounced out of the office promising he'd be at the end of the phone should I encounter any problem. And there was always the helpline.

The actual training consisted initially of a flurry of paperwork which needed to be read, digested and signed followed by a crash course in operating a terminal alongside the one-thousand-and-one other actions required to run a post office.

The Horizon training merely comprised an explanation of the various icons on the terminal and an official handing over of my very own Horizon Operations Manual - oh and the number of the help-lines. I was not shown any troubleshooting techniques or what to do if the system showed discrepancies or shortfalls.

Phil and Fiona with one of her boys in 2008
I have had a long business career, working for large organisations throughout my life. I can honestly say the Post Office training was the worst I ever experienced, considering the complexity of the system and the consequences and personal liability should anything go wrong. Other companies would require months of training in order to be left alone to deal with a system like Horizon.

Luckily I inherited a very experienced staff member and with her help and guidance, over six months or so, Fiona and I became satisfied that we actually knew what the hell we were doing - although we had never envisaged just how complex it would be to run a post office.

Over time Fiona became super-competent (she was very clever with great admin skills) and although we had lost our main staff member to retirement we were lucky enough to secure the services of yet another efficient counter assistant (we'll call her Brenda). Brenda came highly recommended by my area manager. She was a veteran with decades of blemish-free counter experience in both Crown and franchised branch offices.

Brenda was a lovely salt-of-the-earth lady and she and my wife became good friends.

After another year or so - aside from building-up and running the retail side - my sole contribution to running the post office counter was producing the weekly balance.

Hours checking everything

We promoted Brenda to manager, and in due course Fiona and Brenda took on the joint responsibility of producing the weekly balance, reporting back to me accordingly.

When I did the balancing my recollection is that there were numerous discrepancies, but many of them bounced back via Transaction Corrections the following week or were re-credited at a later date.

I remember mentioning it to the Post Office area rep but he simply dismissed it as 'some kind of crossover' (as did the help-desk).

However there were also a number of occasions I do remember where I had to fork out sums that never did return - two of them sizeable - £200 and £2000.

At no point did I suspect dishonesty - a slip of the finger perhaps - but there was only my wife and Brenda with my daughter helping on the retail side. I also had a sophisticated cctv system, including covert cameras - there for an absolute double-check.

Also, we did not just accept a shortage - we would spend hours and hours after a balance double-checking absolutely everything again and again. My wife and Brenda had a mantra - 'it has GOT to be here somewhere'. They'd repeat it constantly throughout the check.

Fast-forward now to 11 Feb 2004 - one of the worst days of my life.

Discrepancy, audit, ransacking and closure

I received a phone call from Brenda informing me that the weekly balance was showing a shortage of more than thirty thousand pounds.

Convinced it had to be an error I rushed over to the office and did a further two balances myself. These produced the same awful result.

My wife informed me that the shortage had been accumulating in large amounts over the previous five weeks.

Fuming at Brenda, I reminded her that it was a part of her responsibilities to inform me immediately of any shortage greater than two figures - and why hadn't she done so!?

It transpired that she'd been overruled by my wife 'so as not to worry me'.

They'd recently been experiencing shortages on a regular basis, they told me, but up until the last five weeks they'd bounced back the following week - literally all of them.

They'd simply been rolling over with the shortages.

For five weeks they'd been expecting a similar outcome but the discrepancies did not reverse, they  accumulated.

I immediately called the area manager, explained the situation, and he was there within the hour, alongside two forensic accountants.

The accountants did two balances arriving at the same awful conclusion.

The area manager then took me aside and asked me just one question..."how soon can you pay us back?"

The three of them then literally ransacked the place, emptying the office of all that had Post Office ownership. Money, stamps, postal orders, alongside the terminals, scales and  finally demanding the keys to the safes.

It was all over in a flash! The office never opened again.

You're the only one

Over the next few days we were each of us called in 'individually' for questioning, firstly by the local management and then by a team of three investigators from the head office in England.

From the very start their attitude toward us was one of guilty until proven innocent.

I remember the investigation team at one point attempting to point the finger of suspicion toward my wife, telling me that in the majority of cases they've investigated it turned out to be the spouse. This seemed 'scripted' as I'd already had the same spiel from the local guys.

No matter how much I protested our innocence, suggesting a possible glitch in the system, it was met with the same slow head-shake accompanied by a knowing smirk - 'if that were the case you'd be the only Subpostmaster in the entire network to experience such a glitch - ever!' I was expressly told that if I was experiencing problems with Horizon then I was ‘the only one on the planet’ having such issues.

Eventually I was cleared of any suspicion but both Fiona and Brenda were charged with false accounting.

I requested a temporary Subpostmaster to run our office until we got to the bottom of it, but this was categorically refused.

I invited them to come take a look at our home; encouraged them to have a look at our bank accounts; our properties; welcomed any kind of private investigation, however intrusive.

£30,000 is a lot of money for sure, but at that time it was a drop in ocean compared to my net worth.
But they were having none of it. Simply not interested.

The investigation team scuttled back down south, assuring me they had the facility to trace and investigate the transaction journey from point-of-sale to destination - something I'd asked about - and they said that they would report back.

I never heard from them again, nor were they contactable.

Post Office refuse to co-operate with police

Meanwhile, angered at the way the investigation was being conducted - and by now deeply suspicious of their motives (network re-invention was underway at the time) - I approached the local police asking that they investigate, supplying them with a comprehensive background and log of events.

They contacted me a few days later apologetically explaining that although they were happy to help, the Post Office were unwilling to co-operate. Not only that, they spelled out to the police that they had their own autonomous investigative structure which included power of arrest & charge.

As the months then drifted by, the prospect of re-opening my branch became unrealistic - my customers/clients etc had been hoovered up by other offices and the retail side was nothing without the footfall.

The shop became derelict and a target of vandalism - also ineligible for insurance.

I recall one incident when Fiona needed to visit the shop after the alarm had been triggered. Whilst boarding up a broken window she was spat on by a former customer. This was witnessed by her two little boys. Charming!

Not long after that I sold it for a pittance.

I did continue to fight my corner however - mainly from the perspective of not being allowed to keep my office open for business. With the help of the National Federation of Subpostmasters - and under the auspices of 'punishment over-kill', the Post Office eventually caved and in 2007 I was offered an £88,000 redundancy payment (from which, of course, they deducted £30,000). Every penny of the balance went toward the outstanding mortgage on the shop.

In the meantime Post Office had 'kindly' informed the local press of the office closure and my resultant suspension.

Word got around, as it does, and in 2008 when a fresh contract with Shell was due for renewal I was subtly and informally advised 'not to bother'. That's the way they worked.

Anything verging on 'dodgy' was a complete no-no with Shell, even after a 14 year blemish-free partnership. I was even training their company-owned site managers for them.

I was a damaged man that's for sure. I'd now lost my main source of income, my post office was gone and the economic collapse of 2008 meant my little property portfolio had all but evaporated, as had the Cash Converter.

Overdose and death

But it was nothing compared to that suffered by my wife.

She was a dynamic woman - full of energy with a strong work ethic (and a good heart), and she genuinely enjoyed her job.

Sadly she also suffered sporadic bouts of black depression, brought on by a dreadful experience as a child. Three or four times a year it would hit her, and each time it would be for a three or four day stretch. It could be truly awful.

Generally she could work through them, and her post office duties were good for her in that respect, as was her beautiful garden.

Now suddenly she was unemployed. Not only that, it dawned on her that she was now probably 'unemployable' due to the criminal charge hanging over her - she would be too honest not to mention it at job interview.

She also felt terribly betrayed by Brenda , whose friendship she greatly valued. She believed what the Post Office investigators had told her...that one of us was a thief....and she knew it wasn't us!

Without going into detail Fiona eventually succumbed to her mental illness and spiralled downwards into what she called her 'cauldron of misery'.

She passed away in her sleep on 21 January 2009 after accidentally over-dosing on her medication.
She was 47.

I have no doubt in my mind that the horror of that whole Post Office fiasco was a major factor in her death.
What's more, I found out years later via a freedom of information requests that the criminal charges against her had been dropped years before - while she was still with us.

The Post Office did not even have the courtesy or decency to inform her."

The Post Office have told me they will not comment on individual cases whilst the group litigation is ongoing.

Fiona McGowan 1961 - 2009
Other stories:

16 Jan 2019
A former Subpostmaster writes: "She was simply regurgitating a lie."

6 Jan 2019
A former Subpostmaster writes: "I am broken."

30 Dec 2018
A claimant writes: "I felt a fool for trusting them."

12 Dec 2018
A former Subpostmaster writes: "This was systematic abuse... I lost my business and lost my family."

27 Nov 2018
A former Subpostmaster writes: "I hate them."

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Timeline

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Start here

I'm trying to make this website as accessible as possible. If you're new to this story's twenty year history it might seem tricky working out where to dive in. This page is here to help.

So... what's this Post Office Horizon IT scandal all about, then? 

Here is an attempt to answer that question in 400 words.

About

If you'd like to know more about who I am and the reason for this website's existence - do take a look at the About section. It was one of the first pages I put together. It tells you about my relationship to the story, as well as the crowdfunding campaign I launched to fund my reporting.

Subpostmasters

The human stories at the centre of this scandal should be keeping a lot of people awake at night. They are, on occasion, harrowing. Many more remain untold.

"I hate everything about it. I will not go into a Post Office" - Nicki, 32yo, is accused of theft by Post Office goons. She loses everything. The trial is a farce. The jury find her not guilty. She has been on Prozac on and off ever since.
"They didn't care that I was this scared girl" - Tracy, a 19yo, is accused of theft. She pleads innocent, tries to commit suicide and is jailed.
Wendy Buffrey's story - accused of theft and false accounting, Wendy suffers a complete mental breakdown.
"The horror of that whole Post Office fiasco was a major factor in her death" - Phil loses his wife after the Post Office accuse him of losing tens of thousands of pounds.
"I am broken" - Wendy Martin ploughs thousands into her Post Office, it is badly wired, her computer keeps cutting out, she is accused of losing £30,000. She is clinically depressed, on pills and has lost everything.
Seema and Jo's story - Seema was thrown in prison whilst pregnant, Jo narrowly avoided jail.
Sue Knight's story - part of two five minute, easy to watch BBC tv pieces. Accused of false accounting, Sue is advised to plead guilty. She refuses. The Post Office offers no evidence and the case collapses.
Julian Wilson RIP

For more, please see the Victim testimony page.

The litigation which gives this website its name:

Bates and others v Post Office class action (or Group Litigation Order) was filed in 2016.

The first (Common Issues) trial was held in Nov/Dec 2018.
First trial judgment was handed down 15 March 2019.
The second (Horizon) trial was held Mar/Jul 2019.
The Horizon trial judgment was handed down on 16 Dec 2019 - see "They did it".
Though, weirdly, the case was actually settled on 11 Dec 2019 - see "It's all over"
As a direct result of the litigation, 39 Subpostmaster cases which were being investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission have now been referred to the Court of Appeal.
The Prime Minister has indicated he would support a public inquiry into this scandal.

The shareholder - HMG:

Despite being the sole shareholder in Post Office Ltd, the government has essentially let it operate without proper scrutiny for the best part of 20 years. Successive Postal Services Ministers have refused to be interviewed. There has not been a single review of the Post Office's prosecution strategy.

"Trying to hold the government to account for its actions" - meeting the current minister for Postal Services and a senior civil servant who sits on the board of the Post Office.
BIS select committee inquiry into Horizon IT system - 3 Feb 2015
Transcript of the Westminster Hall debate on the Horizon IT system - 17 Dec 2014

Post Office senior management:

Since this story broke in 2009, the Post Office has refused to be interviewed about any aspect of it. Apart from once on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in 2014.

"Post Office: the ONLY interview" - transcript of the 2014 Post Office interview.
"The Ballad of Paula Vennells" - how the Post Office chief executive managed to wash her hands of what her own organisation was accused of doing.
"And with that... she was gone" - summary of the outgoing Post Office CEO's failures.

The unions:

Whilst the government has failed to properly scrutinize the Post Office from above, the failure of the National Federation of Subpostmasters to challenge from below is perhaps the biggest scandal of them all. The NFSP has repeatedly thrown members who were having problems with Horizon under a bus. It is only now the Communications Workers Union has gained a toe-hold amongst Subpostmasters that the Post Office is being properly challenged.

Common Issues trial judgment: the NFSP - a damning indictment of the NFSP's activities, colluding with the Post Office and acting against its members interests, written up in a High Court judgment.
The Post Office admits it can ignore the NFSP - the NFSP claims it negotiates with the Post Office. The Post Office says it only discusses things with the NFSP and can safely ignore it.
Bates v Post Office: The NFSP - my view on the NFSP, written well before the High Court judgment, but coming to more or less the same conclusion.
A union man writes - a former NFSP rep turned CWU organiser tells all.

Key moments in the litigation:

"He did it" - after sixteen years of campaigning, Alan Bates wins the first ever judgment against the Post Office over its treatment of Subpostmasters.
"Going Postal" - the Post Office submits its application to recuse the litigation's presiding judge. All hell breaks loose.
The recusal hearing - Lord Grabiner v Sir Peter Fraser.
Sir Peter Fraser declines to be recused. A damning judgment.
Fraser J is going nowhere - the Court of Appeal agrees the Post Office's recusal application is entirely without merit.
First trial judgment appeal application - the Post Office is applying to appeal the Common Issues trial judgment.
The long March to, er March - the third trial in this litigation will happen in March 2020. This piece sums up the current state of play.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission

Since 2015, the CCRC has been looking into 61 prosecutions of Subpostmasters or counter staff made by the Post Office over the last 20 years. The CCRC has the power to refer potential wrongful convictions or miscarriages of justice to the Court of Appeal. This is the biggest cohort of cases it is dealing with.

CCRC refers 39 cases to the Court of Appeal
CCRC blames Post Office for decision delay - why is it taking so long for the CCRC to make up its mind?
CCRC gets interested in the Bates and others v Post Office litigation - despite sitting on 32 cases since 2015 the CCRC had somehow concluded it should make a decision on whether to send some or all of them to appeal shortly before the first group litigation trial was due to get started. This potential act of madness was thankfully averted.

Crowdfunding

I am a freelance journalist and have been following this story since 2010. Between 2011 and 2020 I made several broadcast pieces for the BBC, including a Panorama, a File on 4 plus several investigations for Inside Out and the One Show. I also spent nine years contributing to Private Eye magazine on this story, culminating in a six page special report, which was published in March 2020.

When the trials approached in 2018 I figured my best chance of getting a front row seat in court was to try to crowdfund my journalism. Amazingly, and thanks to the extraordinary generosity of a whole range of people, I was given enough money to report the entire litigation.

I now crowdfund via the Paypal buttons which lurk at the bottom of every blog post and report new post-Post Office Trial developments. Of which there are many.


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If you can, please help keep this crowdfunded public-interest journalism project going by chucking a few quid in the tip jar below. Contributors who give £20 or more will start receiving regular "secret" emails which have all the info and gossip about this litigation as it makes its way through the courts. Click here to see how and where your money is being spent.

Choose an amount

Expert comment

I asked people to contact me with their own thoughts about the Post Office and Horizon, and the ongoing class action. If you have something to say about the various trials, you use Horizon regularly or you are a computer expert, politician, legal/accountancy/fraud/investigations specialist with a particular area of expertise or experience relevant to this website, or you work(ed) for the Post Office or Fujitsu, or the NFSP or you just have a relevant and useful anecdote, please get in touch via the contact form on this website and I'll post up your perspective too!

Here is what I've got so far, latest first. You can also find these pieces via the date they were posted by looking down the right hand nav bar of this blog web page.


Victim testimony

I have asked people to write about their own experiences with the Post Office and Horizon, in order to build up a series of case studies which hopefully give some insight into what some former Subpostmasters have been through. If you are a former Subpostmaster or Post Office worker with a story to tell, please get in touch via the contact form on this website.

You can also find these pieces via the date they were posted by looking down the right hand nav bar of this blog web page.

Chirag Sidphura's story: "I felt as if a ton of bricks had fallen on my chest."
Farncombe Post Office Subpostmaster is accused of losing £57,000. Too late to join the group litigation, he is still fighting.

Nicki Arch's story: "I hate everything about it. I will not go into a post office."
An innocent post office manager is accused of fraud, theft and false accounting. She loses everything.

Deirdre Connolly's story: "It's been a living hell."
Deirdre is sacked for a £16,000 discrepancy which is never properly investigated. Her mental health disintegrates.

Tracy Felstead's story: "They didn't care that I was this scared girl" - Tracy, 19 years old, is accused of theft, prosecuted and tries to commit suicide.

Wendy Buffrey's story "I just sat and cried for hours."
Wendy was a Subpostmaster in Up Hatherley, Cheltenham. She was prosecuted for theft and false accounting by the Post Office, despite there being no evidence of theft. She pleaded guilty to false accounting. Her mental health completely collapsed.

Pete Murray is not told by the Post Office that the branch he is taking over at Hope Farm Road in Great Sutton used to be run by Martin Griffiths, a Subpostmaster who in 2013 took his own life after being hounded by the Post Office for inexplicable discrepancies. Pete soon starts to find the Horizon system is playing up:
1) "The Post Office claim I owe them £35,000, despite never showing or telling me what I have done wrong."
2) "What kind of games are you playing with human beings' lives?"
3) "Post Office Ltd see fit and well to treat me like this, pending an 'investigation' which appears not to be taking place."
4) "You'd better get a lawyer."

Gary Brown's story: "I balanced and it showed a loss of £32,000."
A Subpostmaster in Rawcliffe, East Yorkshire, loses his house, business, health, and reputation.

24 Jan 2019
"The horror of that whole Post Office fiasco was a major factor in her death."

16 Jan 2019
A former Subpostmaster writes: "She was simply regurgitating a lie."

6 Jan 2019
A former Subpostmaster writes: "I am broken."

30 Dec 2018
A claimant writes: "I felt a fool for trusting them."

12 Dec 2018
A former Subpostmaster writes: "This was systematic abuse... I lost my business and lost my family."

27 Nov 2018
A former Subpostmaster writes: "I hate them."

Friday, 18 January 2019

Minister for Postal Affairs states government position on Bates v Post Office

In a reply to West Tyrone MP Órfhlaith Begley's query on behalf of a constituent, Kelly Tolhurst, the Minister for Postal Affairs at the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy states the government's position on the ongoing Bates and others v Post Office group litigation.

The letter is dated 11 Jan 2019. The letter reads as follows (you can see the original here or embedded below)

"Dear Órfhlaith

Thank you for your letter 11 December 2018 to the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP about Group
Litigation vs Post Office Limited. I am replying as this matter falls within my Ministerial
portfolio.

Firstly, I should explain that while the Post Office is publicly owned, it is a commercial business
operating across a range of competitive markets. The Government sets the strategic direction
for the Post Office - to maintain a national network accessible to all and to do so more
sustainably for the taxpayer - and allows the company the commercial freedom to deliver this
strategy as an independent business. This approach has resulted in a more commercially
sustainable business with decreasing reliance on taxpayer subsidy and a post office branch
network that is at its most stable and accessible in decades at 11,500 branches and with
99.7% of customers living within 3 miles of their nearest branch.

The claim Alan Bates and Others v Post Office Limited is currently being conducted in the
High Court pursuant to a Group Litigation Order, with the first trial having concluded on 6
December 2018 and a second trial being due to commence on 11 March 2019. The legal
defence of this litigation and the costs involved in doing so are being handled by Post Office
Ltd and I would refer you to the notes to the accounts in Post Office Ltd’s Annual Report for
2017/18 which state:

“On 11 April 2016, a High Court claim was issued on behalf of a number of postmasters
against Post Office in relation to various legal, technical and operational matters, many of
which have been the subject of significant external focus for a number of years. Post Office is
robustly defending the claim, believes it lacks merit, but welcomes the opportunity to have
these matters resolved through the Court-managed Group Litigation Order. The Court has
ordered two trials to be heard in 2018/19 to determine a subset of the preliminary issues in
dispute between the parties. The Court has not yet ordered a process for determining any
issues of liability or quantum. To date, the Claimants have not asserted the aggregate value of
their claims in any of the Particulars of Claim filed in the litigation. While the Directors
recognise that an adverse outcome could be material, they are currently unable to determine
whether the outcome of these proceedings would have a material adverse impact on the
consolidated position of the Group, and are unlikely to be able to do so until the Court has
made further determinations and the Claimants have provided the necessary information
about the value of their claims. The Directors continue to keep this under close review. In
2017/18 the costs of £3 million included in operating exceptional items relate to Post Office
defending the Post Office Group Litigation. These have been disclosed as operating
exceptional items because we expect costs to be more significant in 2018/19 and 2019/20.”

The outcome of this litigation is a matter for the court to decide and the Government is unable
to comment further on any matters relating to this litigation.

The Post Office’s Articles of Association state under Article 11.1(0) that one of the matters
requiring the consent of the Special Shareholder (the Secretary of State) is

“the entry into or implementation of a relevant transaction by any member of the group which involves or is likely to involve (either individually or when taken together with all other related relevant transactions (other than any related relevant transaction previously approved under this article 11.1(0) entered into or implemented in the previous 12 months)) the incurrence of a
commitment or liability, or the payment of a sum, by any member of the group which is an
amount in excess of £50,000,000”

As the sole Shareholder, the Government expects Post Office Limited to ensure value for
money principles in its use of resources at all times. Therefore, any requests for consent under
Article 11.1(0), for whatever purpose, are considered in the light of these value for money
principles.

KELLY TOLHURST MP,
Minister for Small Business, Consumers & Corporate Responsibility"

Post Office witnesses in the Common Issues trial

Whilst I was live-tweeting the Common Issues trial from Court 26 of the High Court's Rolls building, I would often get live feedback, either from observers in the courtroom who would buttonhole me during a break, or online from the people reading my tweets.

On a couple of occasions I was told that a particular Post Office employee giving evidence from the witness stand was either mistaken, not telling the full story, or lying. These are serious accusations. Without evidence, they cannot be given any credence. Like the claimant witnesses before them all the people listed below swore an oath that what they were saying was true.

However, the people making these accusations were adamant they were right, and, to be fair, during her three days on the stand Angela van den Bogerd, the Post Office's People Services Director, was forced to admit she had made a "mistake" with some of the evidence she was giving when she was pulled up on it in court (see Day 8).

Now we have the transcripts, we can look at this again. If you have had any dealings at any stage with any of the people below, have a read of their testimony. Does it check out? Do you have direct, personal and verifiable experience that what they are saying is untrue, or are they being straightforward and honest witnesses?

One particular incident in court sticks in my mind - when Paul Williams, right at the very end of his testimony on Day 6 was asked:

 Q.  Did you ever have any complaints about the skill levels of your team or their efficiency?

His answer was:

   A.  No.

I have no reason to disbelieve him. However, such a simple exchange appears to have inflamed a number of passions in some correspondents who believe that Mr Williams was mistaken in his assertion.

The Post Office witnesses were:

Nick Beal, Head of Agents’ Development and Renumeration.
Paul Williams, Restrictions Advisor
Sarah Rimmer, Agent Remuneration and Expenses Manager.
John Breeden, Head of Agency Contracts.
Angela van den Bogerd, People Services Director.
Timothy Dance, Retail Transformation Integration Manager.
Helen Dickinson, Security Team Leader.
Michael Shields, Temporary Subpostmaster Advisor.
Elaine Ridge, Network Contract Advisor.
David Longbottom, Training and Audit Advisor.
Michael Webb, Training and Audit Advisor.
Michael Haworth, Network Engagement Manager.
Andrew Carpenter, Agents Contract Advisor.
Brian Trotter, Network Contract Advisor.

The links will take you to their evidence.

If you have had dealings with any of these people, go and read what they said in their sworn testimony in court. If you believe they are not telling the truth in any aspect of what they say, and can back that up with testimony and/or documentation, get in touch.

Transcripts:

Day 1 transcript - Wed 7 November - Opening arguments
Day 2 transcript - Thu 8 November - Claimants: Alan Bates, Pam Stubbs part 1
Day 3 transcript - Mon 12 November - Pam Stubbs part 2, Mohammad Sabir
Day 4 transcript - Tue 13 November - Naushad Abdulla, Liz Stockdale
Day 5 transcript - Wed 14 November - Louise Dar
Day 6 transcript - Thu 15 November - Post Office: Nick Beal, Paul Williams
Day 7 transcript - Mon 19 November - Sarah Rimmer, John Breeden, AvdB part 1
Day 8 transcript - Tue 20 November - AvdB part 2
Day 9 transcript - Wed 21 November - AvdB part 3, Timothy Dance, Helen Dickinson, Michael Shields part 1
Day 10 transcript - Thu 22 November - Michael Shields part 2, Elaine Ridge, David Longbottom, Michael Webb
Day 11 transcript - Mon 26 November - Michael Haworth, Andrew Carpenter, Brian Trotter

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Reading the Common Issues trial

Getting wiggy with it
More than half a million words were spoken during or written up for the Common Issues trial.

I know this because I wrote and spoke some of those words, and I was present every single day in court to live tweet and report on proceedings. And because I used the word count facility on my word processing application whilst pasting them up on this blog.

So they're all here to be read, but navigating your way around half a millions words to find the killer line might feel daunting. So here's a mini-guide:

If you do not know anything about the story behind this trial, you can either read the about section of this blog (also linked to on the nav bar at the top of every page of this blog), or Antonia Hoyle's rather brilliant piece for the Daily Mail, published on 1 Dec last year.

The Common Issues Trial Menu (also linked to on the nav bar at the top of every page of this blog) will help you get around. 

Rather than read the Generic Particulars of Claim, Generic Defence and Common Issues (all linked to in the Common Issues trial menu) you might as well dive into the transcripts on Day 1. Here both the claimants' and defence barristers set out their arguments, and it's quite easy to follow.

Once you have done that, by all means have a look at the Generic Particulars of Claim, the Generic Defence and the Common Issues, but you don't need to. They are filled with legalese and can be hard going.

You're better off heading to the witness statements of lead claimants who give evidence on the second day: Alan Bates and Pam Stubbs. Then read the day 2 transcript.

Then read the witness statement of Mohammad Sabir and read the day 3 transcript.

Then read Naushad Abdulla and and Liz Stockdale and read the day 4 transcript.

Then read Louise Dar and the day 5 transcript.

I would not bother with going to the Post Office employee witness statements next. The JFSA barrister makes a very good job of suggesting they are barely worth the paper they are written on. I would go straight into the day 6 transcript and read through the cross-examinations.

The Post Office witnesses were:

Nick Beal, Head of Agents’ Development and Renumeration.
Paul Williams, Restrictions Advisor
Sarah Rimmer, Agent Remuneration and Expenses Manager.
John Breeden, Head of Agency Contracts.
Angela van den Bogerd, People Services Director.
Timothy Dance, Retail Transformation Integration Manager.
Helen Dickinson, Security Team Leader.
Michael Shields, Temporary Subpostmaster Advisor.
Elaine Ridge, Network Contract Advisor.
David Longbottom, Training and Audit Advisor.
Michael Webb, Training and Audit Advisor.
Michael Haworth, Network Engagement Manager.
Andrew Carpenter, Agents Contract Advisor.
Brian Trotter, Network Contract Advisor.

You can find links to the transcript of their evidence laid out in the Common Issues trial menu. Having read what they say, if you then want to go back and cross-reference the transcripts with their witness statements, be my guest - I have posted them all up and they are linked to in the menu too.

Then finally have a look at the Common Issues - which is what this trial is all about - and then go and read everything again.

I am still waiting on the transcripts of the last four days of the trial - which comprised closing arguments. Days 14 and 15 were taken up with the closing argument of the Post Office barrister. He methodically tore into the claimants' legal position whilst trying to persuade the judge to ignore the testimony of all the witnesses and park them for October's "breach" trial.

Mr Cavender made (through implication) the perfectly respectable point that whether Post Office employees had been acting with incompetence or worse in the cases that were described in court, it didn't actually matter to the Common Issues trial - this first trial was about whether the contractual relationship between the Post Office and its Subpostmasters allowed the Post Office to act as it had done, and he contended it was. 

If you're still hungry for more you can read the claimants' stories I posted on my blog. These people are part of the class action, but were not required to give evidence in court this time round. I'd recommend checking out Bal GillHelen WalkerWendy MartinJanet BradburyChris and an anonymous correspondent. If you're feeling very lazy you can sit back and watch a couple of One Show pieces I helped make back in 2014 which tell various peoples' stories. (There's also the perspective of the Communications Workers' Union Subpostmaster rep, Mark Baker, which is very much worth reading).

If you count up the claimants' stories on this blog and the cases of the lead claimants in the Common Issues trial, and those in Antonia' Daily Mail article and those in my One Show pieces, you will still only know about what happened to around 3% of the claimants in this class action. 


To which I would say - well - we'll see, won't we...?

Day 1 transcript - Wed 7 November - Opening arguments
Day 2 transcript - Thu 8 November - Claimants: Alan Bates, Pam Stubbs part 1
Day 3 transcript - Mon 12 November - Pam Stubbs part 2, Mohammad Sabir
Day 4 transcript - Tue 13 November - Naushad Abdulla, Liz Stockdale
Day 5 transcript - Wed 14 November - Louise Dar
Day 6 transcript - Thu 15 November - Post Office: Nick Beal, Paul Williams
Day 7 transcript - Mon 19 November - Sarah Rimmer, John Breeden, AvdB part 1
Day 8 transcript - Tue 20 November - AvdB part 2
Day 9 transcript - Wed 21 November - AvdB part 3, Timothy Dance, Helen Dickinson, Michael Shields part 1
Day 10 transcript - Thu 22 November - Michael Shields part 2, Elaine Ridge, David Longbottom, Michael Webb
Day 11 transcript - Mon 26 November - Michael Haworth, Andrew Carpenter, Brian Trotter

Common Issues trial menu


The Common Issues trial was the first trial in the Bates and others v Post Office group litigation at the High Court. It was held at the Rolls Building between Wed 7 Nov and Thu 6 Dec 2018. Mr Justice Fraser presided.

The judgment was handed down on 15 March 2019. You can read it here. It is 180,000 words long.

If you'd prefer something a little shorter, there is my bluffer's guide to the Common Issues judgment. You can read it here in five minutes. There's also my report on what happened in and outside of court when the judgment was handed down. It's called "He did it." See the bottom of this post for more reaction to the judgment.

Fancy more than dipping your toes in, but you're still not read for the full judgment? This is my fisking of the Common Issues judgment in 5 parts:

Part 1 - on the first few lead claimants and their treatment by the Post Office
Part 2 - on the last few lead claimants and their treatment by the Post Offic
Part 3 - on the Post Office witnesses (one found to mislead the court on oath)
Part 4 - the Post Office's goon squad and general attitude problem
Part 5 - a breakdown of who won what re the Common Issues themselves
Special report on the judge's findings on the National Federation of Subpostmasters

See the bottom of this post for more reaction to the judgment, including press cuttings.

The rest of this blog post deals with everything pretty much chronologically as the trial happened. It includes day-by-day transcripts, write-ups, extra pieces witness statements and other documents as presented to court, not least:

The Common Issues - what the first trial was contested on.

Claim particulars - what this group litigation is about.
Generic defence and counterclaim - the Post Office's defence.

Also, before you start, you might like to read a pre-trial judgment (judgment no.2) - handed down on 20 October - a couple of weeks before the trial started - in which the Post Office's attempts to get lots of evidence ruled inadmissible was struck out. It is quite entertaining.

Ready? Here we go:

Day 1 - Wed 7 November

Claimants' opening statement - Mr Patrick Green QC.
Defendant's opening statement - Mr David Cavender QC.

Transcript,
Write-up: "Skeleton arguments"
Collated live tweets.

Day 2 - Thu 8 November

Giving evidence:

Lead Claimant 1 - Alan Bates
Lead Claimant 2 - Pam Stubbs part 1

Transcript.
Write-up: "Alan Bates and Pam Stubbs take the stand"
Colllated live tweets (morning).
Collated live tweets (afternoon).

Supporting information:
Alan Bates' witness statement.
Pam Stubbs' witness statement.
Serious Horizon Errors document.

Extra pieces by me: Liabilities

Day 3 - Mon 12 November

Giving evidence:

Lead Claimant 2 - Pam Stubbs part 2
Lead Claimant 3 - Mohammad Sabir

Transcript,
Write-up: "Pam Stubbs finishes being cross-examined".

Supporting information:
Mohammad Sabir's witness statement.

Extra pieces by me: Post Office internal memos - Serious Horizon Errors

Day 4 - Tue 13 November

Giving evidence:

Lead Claimant 4 - Naushad Abdulla
Lead Claimant 5 - Liz Stockdale

Transcript,
Write-up: "Naushad Abdulla and Liz Stockdale".

Supporting information:
Naushad Abdulla's witness statement,
Liz Stockdale's witness statement.

Day 5 - Wed 14 November

Giving evidence:

Lead Claimant 6 - Louise Dar

Transcript
Write-up: "Final Lead Claimant is cross-examined".
Collated live tweets.
Supporting information: Louise Dar's witness statement.

Day 6 - Thu 15 November

Giving evidence:

Nick Beal, Head of Agents’ Development and Renumeration, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
Paul Williams, Restrictions Advisor, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).

Transcript
Write-up: "The Post Office speaks!"
Collated live tweets.

Extra pieces by me: The NFSP

Day 7 - Mon 19 November

Giving evidence:

Sarah Rimmer, Agent Remuneration and Expenses Manager, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
John Breeden, Head of Agency Contracts, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
Angela van den Bogerd, People Services Director, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here) part 1.

Transcript.
Write-up: "Angela van den Bogerd part 1"
Collated live tweets.

Day 8 - Tue 20 November

Giving evidence:

Angela van den Bogerd, People Services Director, Post Office Ltd - part 2.

Transcript.
Write-up: "Best of Angela van den Bogerd part 2"
Collated live tweets.

Day 9 - Wed 21 November

Giving evidence:

Angela van den Bogerd, People Services Director, Post Office Ltd - part 3.
Timothy Dance, Retail Transformation Integration Manager, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
Helen Dickinson, Security Team Leader, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
Michael Shields, Temporary Subpostmaster Advisor, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here) part 1

Transcript.
Write-up: "Paula Vennells implicated".
Collated live tweets.

Extra piece by me: Did the Post Office prosecute Subpostmasters in order to seize their assets?

Day 10 - Thu 22 November

Giving evidence:

Michael Shields, Temporary Subpostmaster Advisor, Post Office Ltd - part 2.
Elaine Ridge, Network Contract Advisor, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
David Longbottom, Training and Audit Advisor, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
Michael Webb, Training and Audit Advisor, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).

Transcript
Write-up: "The Long and Windy Road".
Collated live tweets.

Extra pieces by me:
The NFSP "signed in blood" email
Internal Post Office email chain "she is questioning the integrity of Horizon"
Ten memorable moments of the first ten days

Day 11 - Monday 26 November

Giving evidence:

Michael Haworth, Network Engagement Manager, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
Andrew Carpenter, Agents Contract Advisor, Post Office Ltd (witness statement here).
Brian Trotter, Network Contract Advisor, Post Office Ltd, (witness statement here)

Transcript
Write-up: "The joy of text".
Collated live tweets.

There's also a cameo from me at the beginning of the day, if you're interested: Application to make an unofficial sound recording of proceedings.


Day 12 - Monday 3 December

Oral closing statement from the claimants' QC, Mr Patrick Green - part 1

Transcript.
Collated live tweets.
Written closing statement from the claimants' QC.

Extra piece by me: CCRC gets interested in the Common Issues trial.

Day 13 - Tuesday 4 December

Oral closing statement from the claimants' QC, Mr Patrick Green - part 2

Transcript.
Write up: "Something very serious happened today."
Collated live tweets.
Written closing statement from the claimants' QC.

Day 14 - Wednesday 5 December

Oral closing statement from the Post Office QC, Mr David Cavender - part 1

Transcript.
Write up: "What the Post Office did next".
Collated live tweets.
Written closing statement from the Post Office QC.

Day 15 - Thursday 6 December

Oral closing statement from the Post Office QC, Mr David Cavender - part 2

Transcript.
Write up: "Not even the end of the beginning".
Collated live tweets.
Written closing statement from the Post Office QC.

Judgment day - 15 March 2019

Write-up "He Did It"
Common Issues judgment cheat sheet.
The actual judgment - all 180,000 words of it.

Judgment reactions:
Post Office
Alan Bates (JFSA founder and lead claimant) interview outside court +
James Hartley (lead solicitor for the claimants, Freeths) interview outside court +
Media reports on the day
Slightly bonkers Post Office fireside chat video
NFSP Q&A to its members
My comments on the NFSP Q&A

***************

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