Five hundred and fifty subpostmasters who claim they were falsely accused of fraud and theft have won a landmark victory against the Post Office (PO).
Last week at the High Court in London, Justice Fraser ruled in favour of the subpostmasters, stating the PO had a duty to act in good faith, which it had previously failed to do. The ruling changes the PO’s responsibilities to every UK branch owner.
The decision marked the end of the first trial, with another underway and two more to come. Only at the end will it be decided whether glitches in the Horizon till system caused the losses since 2000.
The judge slammed the PO: “There can be no excuse for an entity such as the PO to misstate, in such clearly expressed terms, in letters that threaten legal action, the extent of the contractual obligation upon a [subpostmaster] for losses.
“The only reason for doing so must have been to lead the recipients to believe that they had absolutely no option but to pay the sums demanded. It is oppressive behaviour.”
PO security team leader Helen Dickinson was criticised for claiming more knowledge of the “Horizon system would cause a conflict” in her investigation of the issues. The judge said: “Logic would suggest that an investigator might be assisted by having more detailed knowledge.”
Alan Bates, who founded the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance which spurred the group action, said: “This exposes the dismissive and uncooperative attitude of the PO, which has damaged the lives of so many postmasters.”
Some postmasters claimed the issues had put them into debts running into tens of thousands of pounds. There has been one recorded suicide, and many others were sent to prison.
Former subpostmaster Jo Hamilton lost her business and savings after she first experienced issues in 2003 at her South Warnborough post office.
Speaking to RN outside the court, she said: “I had £36,000 missing from my shop and had to remortgage my house to make up for the shortfall. I pleaded guilty to false accounting because I was scared of going to prison.”
PO chairman Tim Parker responded: “We have taken [the judge’s] criticisms on board and will take action throughout our organisation.” He pledged to respond to branch issues “even more quickly and transparently” and promised to improve communications, support and training for postmasters.”
However, he said the PO is considering appealing some of the judge’s verdict.
The judge ruled the National Federation of Subpostmasters (NFSP) was not an independent trade body acting in subpostmasters’ interests, and said it “would only agree changes in favour of compensation if it obtained a guarantee from the PO on its future commercial funding”.
The Communications Workers Union (CWU) said it has spoken with the government and PO to replace the NFSP. CWU postmaster branch secretary Mark Baker said: “We’re pushing to recognise the CWU as an alternative.”
An NFSP spokesperson added: “We were not asked to provide evidence. The conclusions are one-sided.”
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