Tuesday 19 March 2019

Miscarriages of justice

Blue screen of potential prosecution
At the very heart of this story, beyond the group litigation, is the possibility that some people were prosecuted by the Post Office when they were wholly innocent.

The Post Office has successfully criminalised dozens of Subpostmasters purely on computer evidence generated by its Horizon IT system (illustrated above).

On Monday, an almost mythical document was revealed in court by the claimants' QC, Patrick Green. It was during his cross-examination of the Post Office director Angela van den Bogerd.

It is the Rose report, dated 12 June 2013.

Helen Rose is a fraud analyst asked to look over the case of a Subpostmaster in Lepton who was being accused by the Post Office of a (possibly fraudulent) user error. He was pretty sure it was a Horizon IT error. Ms Rose worked for the Post Office.

The sum at stake - £76.09. Yup. That's all.

The matter at stake - the Subpostmasters' integrity.

What happened?

Ms Rose's report revealed that really crucial information, which Post Office prosecutors relied on when taking Subpostmasters to court, might not be accurate.

As Mr Green explained:
"A transaction took place at Lepton sub-post office [in 2012?] for a British Telecom bill payment for £76.09 ; this was paid for by a Lloyds TSB cash withdrawal for £80 and change a given for £3.91.  At 10.37 on the same day the British Telecom bill payment was reversed out to cash settlement."
This is was suspicious. Certainly the Post Office thought a bill payment being reversed out to cash was odd. A transaction correction came down and the Subpostmaster was forced to settle the discrepancy out of his own pocket. Things escalated. He brought in Ms Rose: "as he believed his reputation was in doubt."

The Credence data - software which logs every keystroke on Horizon - made it clear the transaction reversal had been carried out by someone using the Subpostmaster's login. Credence data is very useful evidence.

Ms Rose also requested the ARQ logs - back end data from Horizon which will often give investigators a fuller picture of what was going on at a branch. Whilst waiting for the ARQ data, Ms Rose contacted a senior Fujitsu engineer, Gareth Jenkins (who was the Post Office's IT expert at Seema Misra's trial).

Mr Jenkins, being a helpful sort of fellow, went and had a look at the live data (which informs the ARQ logs) about this particular issue. He noted that although Credence (which logged the keystrokes) made it clear that someone on the Subpostmaster's login had reversed the cash withdrawal, the live data showed it was a recovery reversal initiated by Horizon after a power failure. According to Mr Jenkins:
"It isn't clear what failed, but if it was a comms error, then the system would have printed a disconnected session receipt and the clerk should have given the customer £80 and told him his bill was unpaid.  The fact that there is no indication of such a receipt in the events table suggests the counter may have been rebooted and so perhaps may have crashed in which case the clerk may not have been told exactly what to do."
Mr Jenkins added:
"The reversal was due to recovery so this was not an explicit reversal by the clerk. This scenario is fairly rare so it is certainly quite easy for the clerk to have made a mistake and either he or the customer could be in pocket/out-of-pocket (depending on exactly what happened!)."
Then he said: "The system is behaving as it should."

Ms Rose replied: "I can clearly see the recovery reversal on the Fujitsu logs received, but would this have been clear had we not previously discussed this issue?"

Mr Jenkins' answer: "Note that the standard ARQ spreadsheet may not make it easy to confirm that the reversal was part of recovery, but the underlying logs used to extract them can show it."


To add another dimension to this drama - we were hearing it discussed it in court in the context of Angela van den Bogerd's evidence. Mrs van den Bogerd says (in her witness statement in paragraph 154) that the claimants' IT expert for the Horizon trial, Jason Coyne, had taken Ms Rose's report out of context. Ms van den Bogerd says Mr Coyne has "mistakenly claim[ed] that the relevant reversal was issued in error by Horizon, not the Subpostmaster."

Mr Green responded:
"Well, we can see from what Gareth Jenkins has actually said in the actual document you are looking at, that that's wrong, can't we. The reversal was not done by the Subpostmaster, it was done by the system."
Mrs van den Bogerd's witness statement was written before she was found to have misled the court in the previous, Common Issues trial. I have no idea if her witness statement was another attempt to mislead the court, but when challenged on what she said she immediately performed what Private Eye call a "reverse ferret". She told the court:

"It was done by the system absolutely, yes."

Mr Green QC asked for confirmation the ferret is being reversed: "It was done by the system and not by the Subpostmaster?"

Mrs van den Bogerd, perhaps not wishing to mislead the court again, directly contradicted her own witness statement: "Yes, it was done by the system, yes."

Mr Green rubbed it in a bit: "So it's fair to say that what we have at paragraph 154 is wrong, isn't it?"

Mrs van den Bogerd confirmed her witness statement was wrong:
"It wasn't issued in error, it was actually issued by Horizon. So I am obviously not be making myself clear, but yes, there's no question that that was done as part of that recovery and it was system generated."
The incomplete picture

But let's not get sidetracked. Let's go back to the Rose report. Ms Rose had a question for Mr Jenkins:
"I can see where this transaction is and now understand the reason behind it.  My main concern is that we use the basic ARQ logs for evidence in court and if we don't know what extra reports to ask for then in some circumstances we would not be giving a true picture."
She continued:
"I know you are aware of all the Horizon integrity issues ... [none of which Mrs van den Bogerd could remember when asked in court]
... and I want to ensure that the ARQ logs are used
 and understood fully by our operational team who have to
 work with this data both in interviews and in court."

Mr Jenkins agreed:
"I understand your concerns. It would be relatively simple to add an extra column into the existing ARQ report spreadsheet, that would make it clear whether the reversal basket was generated by recovery or not. I think this would address your concern.  I'm not sure what the formal process is for changing the report layout."
In court, on Monday 18 March 2019, Mrs van den Bogerd was asked if this relatively simple change, first flagged nearly six years ago, had been effected.

Mrs van den Bogerd: "I don't believe it has been acted on."
Mr Green QC: "You don't believe it has been?"
Mrs van den Bogerd: "I don't believe so."

I don't think I need to spell out the implications.

Read the Day 5 transcript here.
Read the other revelations about serious Horizon errors which came out on Day 5 here.


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