Subpostmasters consider legal action against government in pursuit of financial redress | Computer Weekly

Subpostmasters fighting for financial redress for the suffering inflicted upon them by the Post Office will resort to legal action against the government within months if the stalemate continues.

Two decades after some had their lives upturned by the Post Office, and following a huge court victory in 2019, many are still without fair financial redress.

Former subpostmaster and campaigner Alan Bates, who chairs the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), said: “If they can’t get it sorted in the next few months we will look to take legal action.”

He said the JFSA has been talking to legal advisors. “Legal action has been the only way we have ever got anywhere,” added Bates.

In 2018, the 555 members of the JFSA took the Post Office to court in a Group Litigation Order (GLO), where they proved the Horizon computer system used in Post Office branches was to blame for unexplained accounting shortfalls that they were blamed and punished for.

Prior to embarking on the legal action in 2015, the Post Office had established an investigation and mediation scheme to settle with subpostmasters. But the Post Office underestimated the scale of the problems it caused, and when it realised the extent, it ended the scheme and investigation.

The High Court GLO that ended in December 2019 saw the subpostmasters proven right. Had that court battle not been won by the JFSA, the Post Office scandal may mot have been fully exposed. Hundreds of prosecuted subpostmasters would not have had their wrongful convictions overturned. But despite their role in bringing justice and exposing the scandal, many of the JFSA, including Bates, are yet to receive financial redress.

Government controlling narrative

In his latest circular to JFSA members, Bates said that despite the government being forced to take over the financial redress scheme from the Post Office, little has changed. “Having removed Post Office’s control of the narrative and government stepping in to take control of the events from there on, we now find ourselves back in a similar position to that which we had with Post Office, i.e. government has hold of the control of the narrative, and this is the big problem we are having to deal with nowadays,” he said.

Bates added that 150 of the 555 JFSA members have now accepted a £75,000 offer to settle, with over 300 claims unresolved. “These [unresolved cases] are often referred to as the complex claims as they are for amounts greater than £75,000. So, where are these claims now?” he asked.

Bates continued that a small number, between 10 and 20, have settled, but added: “If nothing changes over the next few months, we will discuss the options I will be bringing to the meeting, and yes, discussions are already underway about possible legal action – yet again. It’s unfortunate if we have to go down that road once more, but if that’s the only way, sobeit, and have no doubt we have the support of the nation and the media if we have to go out and raise the funds needed to go to court again.”

The fight for financial redress has been raging for many years, and the JFSA will not back down until it gets what its members are owed. The government, which is using taxpayers’ money to foot the bill, has been dragged kicking and screaming to the position it has adopted today.

After the JFSA won in the High Court in 2019, claimants received derisory financial redress after legal costs were paid. The JFSA demanded that the Post Office, and therefore government, pay these costs.

At the beginning of 2020, Bates wrote to Kelly Tolhurst, minister for small business, consumers and corporate responsibility, part of the BEIS, demanding the government pay costs so the damages were more appropriate. The government refused. She replied in a letter: “I note that the settlement agreed with the Post Office included all legal and other costs. In those circumstances, I must respectfully refuse your request for payment.”

Compensation scheme

The Post Office had set up a compensation scheme for subpostmasters affected by the scandal, but excluded members of the JFSA because it said the settlement in the High Court was “full and final”.

In September 2020, Conservative peer Martin Callanan, a UK government minister, reconfirmed that the government had no plans to pay the costs racked up by subpostmasters in the legal battle that led to their victory.

By January 2022, the JFSA, still fighting for financial redress, met with government to discuss their demands. At the time, Labour MP Kevan Jones, who has campaigned for justice for subpostmasters, said: “Without the 555 subpostmasters successfully taking civil action, we would not have discovered the lies, deceit and subsequent cover-up by the Post Office, nor would we have had unsafe convictions overturned or the current judge-led statutory inquiry. It is time for the government to look again at why this group is currently carved out of existing compensation schemes and recognise that appropriate compensation must be put forward.”

The following month, the public inquiry, by now statutory, made the compensation arrangements part of its remit, with inquiry chair Wyn Williams addressing the unfairness.

Following the JFSA’s withdrawal from core participation in the inquiry – in protest at the unfair financial redress – the inquiry wrote to the campaign group to confirm it would include its members’ financial redress in the hearings.

In March 2022, the government finally agreed to pay 555 Post Office scandal victims fair financial redress, but many still wait.

The Post Office scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to the accounting software (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below). 

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

Source link