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Tech under spotlight at High Court in second subpostmasters versus Post Office trial

07 Mar 2019, 16:43 ... fice-trial

The second trial in a court battle between the Post Office and the people who run branches analyses alleged bugs in the computer system they use

A High Court trial between subpostmasters and the Post Office will focus on the computer system and supporting services at the centre of the long-running dispute.

This, the second trial of a group litigation order (GLO) brought by more than 500 subpostmasters, will take place in the Rolls Building of the High Court on Fetter Lane, London.

A decade ago, Computer Weekly revealed that the lives of some subpostmasters, who run Post Office branches, were turned upside down as a result of being fined, sacked, made bankrupt and even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls.

They blame the accounting system from Fujitsu, known as Horizon, for the problems. Horizon, which was introduced in 1999/2000, is used by nearly 12,000 post offices, and subpostmasters are held liable for any unexplained losses (see timeline below).

The latest trial, which is expected to run for a month, will hear witness statements from computer experts and throw thousands of known computer errors into the public eye.

One disclosure in the trial is the known errors log, which records errors in the Post Office Horizon retail and accounting system and supporting services used by subpostmasters. It will reveal thousands of bugs, hundreds of which could potentially be capable of leading to losses for subpostmasters. Claimants say they experienced life-changing hardship after being punished for losses, for which they blame the computer system.

The Post Office has always denied the allegations about Horizon, and said there were no problems with the system that could have caused unexplained losses for subpostmasters.

“We have confidence in the Horizon system, which is robust, reliable and used across 11,500 branches by postmasters, agents and their many thousands of staff to process millions of transactions successfully every day, including on behalf of the UK’s high street banks,” said the Post office in the first trial in November 2018.

In 2009, Computer Weekly told the stories of seven of the postmasters affected. Some received heavy fines and had to repay thousands of pounds because of unexplained shortfalls in their accounts. Some lost their life savings and went bankrupt. Others subpostmasters were sent to prison, one while pregnant.

Evidence reveals known problem with Horizon
The first trial in November focused on the contractual relationship between the Post Office and the subpostmasters who manage its local branches.

But the computer system’s alleged faults were a constant theme during the trial. Documents referred to in court revealed evidence of a known problem with Horizon described by the Post Office and its IT partner Fujitsu.

A Post Office internal memo from August 2010, referred to in court and entitled Receipts payments mismatch issue memo day 1 OP_0008387, revealed that discrepancies showing at the Horizon counter disappear when the branch follows certain process steps, but will still show in the back-end branch account.

A Post Office internal memo from August 2010 revealed that discrepancies showing at the Horizon counter disappear when the branch follows certain process steps, but will still show in the back-end branch account

The memo added that this issue could be damaging if revealed. “If widely known, it could cause a loss of confidence in the Horizon system,” the memo said. “There could be a potential impact upon ongoing legal cases where branches are disputing the integrity of Horizon data. It could provide branches with ammunition to blame Horizon for future discrepancies.”

During cross-examination, Post Office director Angela van den Bogerd admitted that the Horizon IT system had made mistakes, which the Post Office was responsible for correcting, but said the Post Office did not necessarily have to tell its subpostmaster network about the errors. Van den Bogerd said the Post Office could have told subpostmasters about the errors, but did not.

The judgment form the first trial is expected to be handed down and available to the public this week. It is expected to give full analysis and findings on the 23 separate issues addressed in the first trial, as well as observations and findings on the evidence given by the witnesses for both sides.

During the first trial, Post Office QC David Cavender described the case as an “existential threat” to the Post Office’s business model. It is currently one of the biggest cases in the UK, and will span at least four trials and extend into 2020.

A third trial, scheduled for October 2019, will focus on individual subpostmasters’ claims, and a fourth trial will probably be held in early 2020.

Meanwhile, Post Office CEO Paula Vennells has had an eventful few months since the first trial. In January she received a CBE in the New Year’s honours list and last month it was announced she is leaving the Post Office to take up the role of chair of Imperial College Healthcare NHS trust.

Separately, the Criminal Courts Review Commission (CCRC) is reviewing about 30 claims from subpostmasters that they were wrongfully prosecuted as a result of problems with the Post Office’s Horizon system.

The CCRC was expected to announce its decisions on the cases under review, but will now wait until after the judge’s ruling on the first trial in the GLO. It might then decide to wait until after the current trial.

The case continues.

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