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Hundreds of sub-postmasters win landmark case against Post Office over Horizon IT fiasco

15 Mar 2019, 15:07 ... o-11666249

More than 550 sub-postmasters have won a case against the Post Office over an IT fiasco that saw some facing jail and bankruptcy.

The postmasters say defects in the Horizon IT system were to blame for discrepancies that meant some were wrongly accused of theft and false accounting.

The dispute has spanned a decade, but on Friday a High Court judge ruled in the postmasters' favour.

There seemed to be a "culture of secrecy and excessive confidentiality generally within the Post Office, but particularly focussed on Horizon", said the court.

Horizon was introduced between 1999 and 2000 but the six lead claimants, who represented the larger group, said it was riddled with problems.

They accused the Post Office of not training them properly on the system, failing to investigate the cause of alleged shortfalls and misleading them about its reliability.

The Post Office denies the claims and says the system worked perfectly well.

Some of those affected by the IT problem have told Sky News how they fell into depression and felt as if "I had a gun to my head" after being accused of stealing money.

Balvinder Gill ran a post office in Oxford in 2003 before he was ordered to repay a massive shortfall which he says led to bankruptcy and depression.

"Every single week I had the same problems of not being able to understand the errors that were occurring," he said.

"The figures on the system never matched the physical stock and cash. After six months, auditors arrived at my office and told me I couldn't enter the counter.

"They said, by their calculations, I was approximately £60,000 down. I couldn't stand up. I was devastated."

The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) said the postmasters had recorded an "emphatic" win in the case.

The first trial took place at the end of last year and at least two more are expected to decide on other aspects of the case, such as potential compensation.

Alan Bates, one of the lead claimants, called it a "major step forward to achieving justice and getting to the truth of the matter".

He said: "Whatever happens from now on, this is the victory we've been fighting for - postmasters have won and Post Office will never again be able to behave as they have in the past with impunity."

The judge, Mr Justice Fraser, decided 23 key issues in Friday's ruling, which will be vital in the outcome of the other trials.

He said the Post Office is subject to duties of good faith, fair dealing, transparency, cooperation, and trust and confidence when dealing with postmasters, and that failure to do so would be a breach of contract.

"The Post Office describes itself on its own website as 'the nation's most trusted brand'," said Mr Justice Fraser.

"So far as these claimants, and the subject matter of this Group Litigation, are concerned, this might be thought to be wholly wishful thinking."

Post Office Chairman Tim Parker said the organisation took the judgement "very seriously".

"We have taken his criticisms on board and will take action throughout our organisation," said Mr Parker.

"Our postmasters are the backbone of our business and our first priority will be to consider the points raised about the management of our contractual relationships and how we could improve them."

He said that problems raised by postmasters would be "investigated even more quickly and transparently" and that training and support would also be improved.

Mr Parker said they would take time to look at the judgement in detail and could appeal "on certain legal interpretations".

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