Labour peer Prem Nath Sikka has asked the government what it knew about the Post Office’s attempt to remove a High Court judge from his position during a High Court battle with 555 subpostmasters.
In March 2019, a multimillion-pound group litigation, where subpostmasters were attempting to prove errors in the computer system caused unexplained shortfalls and not them, was suspended when the Post Office questioned the impartiality of the judge overseeing the trial, Peter Fraser, and called for him to be removed, or recuse himself, from the case.
The application was widely seen as a delaying tactic by the Post Office and an attempt to ramp up costs, after damning evidence had emerged over the cause of the court battle, which began in November 2018. The Post Office, which is owned by UK taxpayers, spent over £100m on legal costs in an attempt to shut the former subpostmasters up.
Fraser rejected the application and the Court of Appeal rejected the Post Office’s appeal against his decision. Lord Justice Coulson, in the Court of Appeal, said: “The recusal application never had any substance and was rightly rejected by the judge.”
In his urgent question, Sikka asked: “…whether any minister or official at the former department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy had any knowledge of, or involvement in, the attempt by lawyers for the Post Office to have Mr Justice Fraser removed from his role as judge in the case Bates and Others vs Post Office; and if so, when they first became aware of the Post Office’s attempts.”
The Post Office went on to lose the legal battle, and in December 2019, settled with the 555 subpostmasters. This victory triggered the next phase of their battle, which has seen hundreds of wrongful convictions overturned, a statutory public inquiry and the government committing over £1bn towards the financial redress of victims of what is known as The Post Office Horizon Scandal.
The plight of affected subpostmasters was first reported in 2009, when Computer Weekly revealed that the lives of subpostmasters had been turned upside down after being fined, sacked, made bankrupt and even imprisoned because of unexplained accounting shortfalls. Some claimants were sent to prison, one while pregnant. They blamed the accounting and retail system they used, known as Horizon, for the problems. The Post Office denied this.
In his stinging response to the Post Office’s application for him to recuse himself, Fraser said he found no apparent bias in any event.
“However, even were I to have concluded that point to the contrary, and found that there was sufficient to justify the Post Office’s application for recusal, I consider the delay, and the continued conducting of the Horizon Issues trial, including both the cross-examination of all of the claimants’ witnesses of fact, and the calling of almost all of the Post Office’s own witnesses of fact, to constitute an unequivocal waiver of any right the Post Office might have had to ask me to abandon the Horizon Issues trial and recuse myself from further involvement as the managing judge,” he wrote.
Following an appeal from the Post Office, Lord Justice Coulson, in the Court of Appeal, said: “The recusal application never had any substance and was rightly rejected by the judge.”
In the days before the Post Office’s attempt to remove Fraser from the case, he had delivered his damning first judgment in relation to the contract between subpostmasters and the Post Office. He said the Post Office showed “oppressive behaviour” in response to claimants accused of accounting errors they blamed on the Horizon IT system.
In the judgement, Fraser wrote: “There can be no excuse, in my judgment, for an entity such as the Post Office to mis-state, 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, in my judgment, 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,” said the ruling.
“The Post Office describes itself on its own website as ‘the nation’s most trusted brand’. So far as these claimants, and the subject matter of this group litigation, are concerned, this might be thought to be wholly wishful thinking.”
Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see timeline of all articles below).
Also read: Everything you need to know about the Post Office Horizon scandal.