Chirag was a successful and popular Subpostmaster who ran the Farncombe branch in South West Surrey.
He was sacked and forced to pay £57,000 to the Post Office (on threat of prosecution) in 2017, when a mysterious discrepancy came up in his branch accounts. Villagers ran a campaign to get him reinstated, and the former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt (his local MP) also go involved.
Since his sacking Chirag has campaigned to get his money back. His hand has been strengthened by the two Bates v Post Office judgments.
The Post Office set up the Historical Shortfall Scheme as part of its settlement agreement with Postmasters in Bates v Post Office. Chirag thought the terms of the scheme were unfair. He wanted to take the entire scheme to judicial review to get it either stopped or changed.
That attempt failed at a (virtual) High Court hearing today. The judge, Mr Justice Holgate, decided the scheme itself was not open to judicial review because it was essentially a matter of private law and judicial reviews can only be brought over matters of public law.
Chirag is not going down without a fight, saying:
"I am devastated that the court refused my application for permission to judicially review the fairness of the HSS. This latest setback is just another hurdle to jump over and only a small road block.
The Post Office said that 2485 former or current Postmasters have applied the join the scheme. That reveals the sheer scale of the harm done by the Post Office over 20 years and the desperation of those who have been affected that they will take any crumb on offer.
I would very much welcome a compensation scheme, and I have always wanted one. But not a compensation scheme in which the Post Office writes the terms (and doesn't make clear what or how they will compensate) and administers the scheme. It's all very well them telling postmasters to trust them, but we have all read Little Red Riding Hood.
At the moment I am considering appealing the decision. My basic problem is that the scheme invites applicants to place a great deal of trust in the Post Office that it will conduct the scheme fairly.
Unfortunately the Post Office's approach to the Bates litigation shows that it in fact will contest every point - it tried to get the judge removed and then tried to appeal one of the main judgments to the Court of Appeal.
I would really like to thank the supporters who dug deep in their pockets and contributed to the fund to have this Judicial Review.
We will be back kicking and shouting. The fight is far from over and justice will be served."
The Post Office's response to this development was a simple:
"We are focussing on resolving the applications made to the Historical Shortfall Scheme as quickly as possible."
Chirag has the opportunity to challenge the High Court's decision by taking it to the Court of Appeal. He has seven days to lodge his appeal, if that is a route he wants to go down.
A few interesting pieces of information came up as a result of today's hearing:
- the number of applicants to the scheme is 2485 as of 5 March, as noted by Chirag in his statement above.
- if you sign up to the scheme looking for more than £10,000, you relinquish the right to take the Post Office to court if you don't like the outcome. And you will have to pay to take the Post Office to arbitration out of your own pocket. So if you claim £250,000 and get offered £15,000, you are then faced with the prospect of taking the £15,000 or paying a possible £5,000 for arbitration. Arbitration could raise or lower or agree your £15,000 (now a net £10,000) was a fair award.
- the government is going to be paying for the HSS, which takes it off the Post Office's books.
This latter point might add weight to the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance demand that the government pay the legal fees of the claimants in Bates v Post Office (who are not entitled to join the HSS) so they can be properly compensated from the litigation settlement.
Otherwise you have a faintly ridiculous situation whereby those who chose to go into the group litigation against the Post Office could be significantly worse off than those who chose not to, waited until the group litigation was over, and enjoyed its fruits.
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