The chair of the statutory inquiry into the Post Office Horizon IT scandal has brought forward hearings focused on compensation issues being experienced by victims.
In his latest announcement, former judge Wyn Williams said these issues “need to be addressed sooner rather than later”.
The fact that the suffering for some began two decades ago, and that the Post Office was found to be to blame over two years ago, has pushed the issue of compensation up the priority list for the inquiry.
Scandal victim Tim Brentnall described the time it was taking to compensate people as “disgusting”.
“I’m 40 and have some time on my side, [but] many of my fellow ex-subpostmasters are much older – people will die before this is sorted,” he said.
Williams this week announced that a two-day hearing about compensation would be held between 4 and 15 July 2022. The inquiry had originally planned to focus on compensation later in the year.
The decision to bring forward these hearings comes after legal representatives of victims of the scandal raised concerns about the various compensation schemes.
The compensation schemes can be split into three groups: there are former subpostmasters who were wrongly convicted of financial crimes; those who successfully sued the Post Office in the High Court; and those who joined the Historical Shortfalls Scheme, which the Post Office was forced to set up after its High Court defeat.
“I originally intended to consider this [Historical Shortfalls Scheme] and its application as part of Phase 5 of the inquiry,” said Williams. “However, I am now satisfied that the issues raised by Howe & Co and Hudgell Solicitors need to be addressed sooner rather than later. Moreover, broader issues of compensation have recently been brought to the fore.”
A long wait
It is more than 20 years since subpostmasters and branch workers began being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls. These occurred soon after the introduction of software from Fujitsu designed to automate manual accounting practices, known as Horizon.
Thousands suffered losses, hundreds were prosecuted for financial crimes, with some set to prison, many subpostmasters were made bankrupt and lives were ruined. There are suicides linked to the suffering experienced.
In 2009, Computer Weekly revealed the scandal, covering the stories of seven subpostmasters affected by the problems (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below).
But still these victims, many of whom are elderly, bankrupt and suffering ill health brought on by years of stress, are waiting for compensation.
Last week, Computer Weekly revealed, through a leaked letter, that the valuations of non-pecuniary losses from the Post Office and the claimants are “poles apart”, a year after convictions were overturned.
Neil Hudgell, a lawyer negotiating compensation for 61 former subpostmasters who have had criminal convictions overturned, wrote that judicial intervention is therefore inevitable.
In his announcement, Williams said: “…apparently, little progress is being made towards assessing final compensation for subpostmasters whose convictions have been quashed in accordance with the minister’s announcement of 14 December 2021. That announcement spelled out the need to finalise matters expeditiously. It certainly did not contemplate that within months of it being made, subpostmasters would be contemplating or issuing further civil proceedings.”
Alan Bates, a former subpostmaster and chairman of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which defeated the Post Office in a multimillion-pound group litigation, said: “I have been saying for months they need to start legal action if they hope to get anywhere.”
Meanwhile, Williams is eager to investigate the progress being made in agreeing compensation for the 555 JFSA members who brought the case to court. They won £57.75m in damages, but after legal costs were paid, they were left with just £11m between them.
The government, which as the owner of the Post Office has agreed to pay the compensation, said this was a full and final settlement until it eventually buckled to huge pressure in Parliament, among the general public and from campaigners in March this year and agreed to pay fair compensation.
Williams said: “…although the minister’s announcement of 22 March 2022 was, no doubt, very welcome to the claimants in the group litigation, it is extremely important that effect is given to the announcement as expeditiously as possible. No doubt these two issues will be the subject of detailed submissions at the hearing which I have decided to convene.”
Meanwhile, issues have been raised by lawyers about the Historical Shortfalls Scheme.
Howe & Co Solicitors has raised numerous concerns with the inquiry chair, including “inadequate, unfunded or non-existent access to legal and other professional advice in preparing claims, repeated and serious failures or refusals to consider heads of claim or types of loss, a lack of interim payments, opacity in relation to progress and delay throughout the HSS process”.
When contacted by Computer Weekly, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “The impact the Horizon scandal has had on postmasters and their families is utterly horrendous, and it is crucial that something like this can never happen again.
“That is why we are providing compensation for those affected, and have launched a statutory inquiry into the scandal to get to the bottom of what went wrong.”
The Post Office recently told Computer Weekly: “We want to provide full, fair and final settlements and are urging the government, who are the funders of the compensation, to help us reach agreement with the legal representatives of the postmasters and therefore be able to make payments as soon as possible.”