Computer Weekly Editor's Blog

Mar 22 2019   11:39AM GMT

Hubris over Horizon? Post Office shocks High Court with accusation of bias

Bryan Glick Bryan Glick Profile: Bryan Glick

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The Post Office likes to describes itself as “the nation’s most trusted brand”. Anyone following the latest developments in the increasingly heated High Court case about its Horizon IT system would be justified in questioning that assertion.

In a move that stunned the court – including the Post Office’s own legal team – the organisation has accused the judge, Sir Peter Fraser, of bias, and suggested he step down from the case. Fraser has been a barrister since 1989, Queen’s Counsel since 2009, and has practised in the Technology and Construction Court field since 1990. He is an experienced judge, who has shown during the case that he has extensive understanding of the often complex technological issues under examination.

Less than a week before, Fraser issued a damning ruling against the Post Office from the first of four trials in the case, in which over 500 subpostmasters claim they were wrongly held responsible for accounting errors allegedly caused by Horizon. In the ruling, Justice Fraser effectively told the most senior Post Office witness that he believed she had lied.

The shock application to recuse the judge came very soon after evidence was presented in court that could potentially undermine many of the Post Office’s previous denials of problems with Horizon. A senior employee of Fujitsu, the IT partner that runs Horizon, admitted that a mistake by one of its staff may have caused a discrepancy in one branch’s accounts, for which the subpostmaster in question was held responsible. Journalist Nick Wallis, who has been live tweeting the case every day from the High Court, called the evidence a “smoking gun”.

The Post Office has consistently claimed that such incidents cannot and have never occurred. Subpostmasters have lost their jobs, livelihoods and sometimes their liberty, after the Post Office refused to acknowledge potential errors in Horizon.

The accusation of bias came from a solicitor working for the Post Office, who claimed that the earlier ruling showed the judge could not be impartial. It’s a stunning accusation. It also means the case has been suspended for two weeks, and even if the claim is denied, it is likely to mean further costly delays to the trial, costing the claimants and all of us taxpayers who are funding the Post Office legal fees. If denied, it may also give the Post Office grounds for appeal should future rulings go against them.

Throughout the 10 years since Computer Weekly first revealed the plight of subpostmasters and the allegations around Horizon, the Post Office has refused to admit one simple, inescapable fact that everyone in IT knows to be true: software is not perfect. Even in the most efficient software application – Horizon has run the Post Office branch network for 20 years – there will be unforeseen bugs, or tiny glitches that are often near-impossible to replicate. Blinkers on, the Post Office has taken technology hubris to new levels.

The claimants’ barrister suggested the Post Office move was “calculated to derail” the trial. The Post Office stands to lose tens of millions of pounds if it loses the case, not to mention the reputational damage. The unanswered question now is how far the organisation is willing to go to prevent that happening.

3  Comments on this Post

 
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  • TimMcCormack
    I think your computer made an error Brian and took a zero off the damages figure - should be Hundreds of Millions of pounds.  One claimant alone is seeking close to 900k and there are another 500+ to consider.  But thanks once again for your continued coverage of what has now worked its way up from a scandal into a travesty of justice at the highest level.  
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  • ZaraScope

    The PO’s decision to recuse a judge can do nothing but attract further scrutiny of their own evident shortcomings. The suspicion is that, like a losing chess player who upturns the board in a fit of pique, the PO HQ is immature, desperate and indifferent if not perhaps callous towards those it may well have harmed.  

    Reading the evidence of the cross-examinations and witness statements of the PO HQ staff, I formed the distinct impression of the workings of a cult.

    Having elevated their organisation to the status of an infallible entity, staff seem to have been conditioned to first and foremost worship the Post Office as a sacred object that is above criticism, thus relegating into tokenism much analysis, investigation and humanity.

    Looking at the evidence of the PO HQ staff is chilling.

    I imagine most fair-minded and reasonable people looking at the evidence of the PO HQ staff would consider the judge to have been admirably restrained in his comments.

    But cult members, having funnelled themselves far down into a hellish cul-de-sac, are incapable of bearing any light to be shone upon them and their shamelessness.

    Sincerely hope the innocent sub-postmasters are chortling as they witness their nemeses displaying their inadequacies and deficiencies so publicly and so graphically.

    I might also add, that I bitterly resent any of my tax money contributing to the PO HQ legal costs. Something for our politicians to diligently scrutinise.      

     

     

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  • Grrumpyoldman
    The post office is now not only abusing Subpostmasters but taking us all for a ride at our expense as you wrote, don' forget they still need a government subsidy to be profitable. 

    HOW CAN THEY CONTINUE TO SAY THE FUNDING IS NOT FROM THE GOVERNMENT FUNDS?
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