Thursday 24 September 2020

Sidhpura v Post Office

Chirag Sidhpura

Move over Alan Bates! This is Chirag Sidhpura. He was Postmaster at Farncombe Post Office until he was suspended over a £57,000 Horizon discrepancy

Under duress, Chirag averted possible legal action by handing the Post Office £57,000, drawn from his family's life savings. The Post Office sacked him anyway.

Chirag's story is told in detail here

Chirag was terminated after the deadline for claimants to join the recent Bates v Post Office litigation. 

After losing the Bates litigation, the Post Office set up something called the Historical Shortfall Scheme (HSS), which, depending on who you believe, is either a warm-hearted attempt to help out every Postmaster (outside litigation claimants and franchise employees) who believe they've been short-changed by the Post Office or it's a cynical piece of window-dressing aimed at pre-emptively watering down the impact of any further legal claims against the Post Office.

I suspect Chirag might lean towards the latter interpretation, which is why he is hoping to take the Post Office to judicial review. Specifically, Chirag wants the HSS reviewed because of:

"(a) the inadequate time allowed for... sub-postmasters to consider whether or not to join the Scheme;

(b) the inadequate information supplied to sub-postmasters in order to decide whether or not to join the Scheme; and

(c) the required surrender of rights and entitlements by sub-postmasters when joining the Scheme, including the right to have their claim determined in open court."

The latter point is key. According to Chirag, if you sign up to the scheme, you sign away your rights to legal redress if you disagree with the scheme's conclusions.

Given the HSS is set up by the Post Office (an organisation which went to court on the basis that it should be able to treat its Subpostmasters "arbitrarily, irrationally or capriciously") and run by Herbert Smith Freehills (the same lawyers advising a banking fraud compensation scheme found to be "neither fair nor reasonable"), you might forgive Chirag for being wary.

Paul Marshall

Chirag is being helped in all this by solicitors Edwin Coe, and barristers Philip Coppel QC,  Paul Marshall and Isabella Buono. All of them are working for free. Paul Marshall told me:

"the Post Office’s conduct revealed in the Bates litigation has exposed arguably the most extensive miscarriage of justice in recent English legal history.  Both the Post Office and the government have an interest in closing-down full and proper public investigation of how this was allowed to happen and the public scrutiny of its consequences.  One means of serving that interest is by a compensation scheme that on the one hand enables the full scale of the Post Office’s wrongdoing and its effects to be closed to public view, and, on the other, by that scheme failing to satisfy basic requirements of fairness."

Chirag too, is angry. Earlier this week he told me that if the judicial review succeeds:

"the 2211 ex/current Postmasters that have already joined the scheme will have time to reflect on WHAT they are getting themselves into... anyone who joins the scheme has no idea on HOW the scheme is actually run.... To me it still seems that we are left to our own resources to try and find information from Horizon which people have no access to, and also to prove WE are innocent."

Chirag does not want your money

A couple of weeks ago Chirag launched a crowdfunding campaign. He needed £10K to part-cover his insurance in case his application failed and the Post Office pursued him for costs.

But before you dive in and pledge some cash, I have a POT exclusive: in the last few days the Post Office told Chirag's lawyers that even if his application fails, they will not go after him for costs (in sharp contrast to what they did to Lee Castleton). 

This means the crowdjustice campaign is redundant, and those who have pledged money will not have it taken from their accounts.

This was confirmed by Mr Marshall, who told me:

"In a limited concession that it has made in this long-running affair... the Post Office has indicated that should Mr Sidhpura fail to get permission to judicially review the scheme it will not seek its costs against him incurred in it resisting the application for permission."

When I approached the Post Office about the judicial review application, they said:

"It is correct that we are responding to a firm of solicitors seeking permission from the High Court to pursue a claim alleging that the scheme is procedurally unfair. We have responded to that claim through the Court processes. We consider the concerns misconceived and hope to resolve these with the former postmaster involved." 


Turkey talk

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