Lawyers acting on behalf of more than a thousand former subpostmasters are asking for others who ever had issues with Post Office Limited’s (POL’s) Horizon accounting system to come forward and join their Group Litigation Order. Some of their stories, such as the following one, are truly shocking.

Phil Cowan ran many forecourts for around 15 years with Shell UK under what they called a Bridging Contract similar to the old licensee system. And he was a subpostmaster for just three years until the PO suspended him. He takes up the story: "My nightmare with POL began in February 2004 when I received a phone call from my staff at Jock’s Lodge PO informing me of a £30k+ deficit in their end-of-week balancing. My staff consisted of my wife (Fiona) and her good friend (Norma).

"After re-checking and establishing that there was indeed a £30k shortfall apparently accumulated over a six-week period I immediately contacted the POL local area manager and closed the office."

He adds: "I should explain that there had been instances in the past where inexplicable shortages had occurred but in virtually all of these instances the monies had returned the following week; the POL helpdesk referred to them as ’reversals’. On this occasion there had been NO reversals over the six-week period."

The area manager arrived and then the POL forensic accountancy team. "The office was officially closed there and then," says Phil, who adds that the area manager asked only one question, ’How soon could I reimburse the £30k shortfall?’

"When I asked the POL investigation team if there could possibly be a glitch in the Horizon system they informed me: ’If there was a glitch then I would be the only SP in the country to have experienced such a problem’...(blatant lie as it turned out). I was eliminated from their enquiries but my wife and her friend were charged with falsifying accounts and with conspiracy to theft. Without the footfall of the PO, the retail side of the business became obsolete and alongside the loss of PO income I was left with no choice but to sell at a substantial loss.

"It is my opinion, and that of many others, that POL saw this as an unscheduled and glorious opportunity to close yet another office under their ’Network Reinvention’ programme. They were seeking to close as many offices as possible. The Federation of Subpostmasters fought my corner but re-instatement of my office was never going to happen and I was forced to cut my losses and accept a paltry redundancy offer, from which of course, they deducted their £30k. The most significant aspect of the whole affair was not the loss of £30k or even the loss of the business... it was the effect it had on my wife’s health."

Fiona, who had suffered intermittent bouts of depression, died, aged just 47, of an accidental overdose. "I can’t prove it but I know the whole POL episode played a significant role in her demise. She also went to her grave with this criminal charge still hanging over her. POL never officially informed me that they had dropped the charges against my wife. I discovered this only after requesting their records of my tenure via the Freedom of Information Act."

In Phil’s case the damage was to his reputation. POL reported his suspension to the local press, Shell got wind of it and his contract was revoked. He joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance which tells me that they have until July 26 for others to come forward.

Criminal treatment from the Post Office

What’s in a name? JPS it seems...

A forecourt operator asked if I could raise an issue with Imperial Tobacco. He writes: "As your readers will be aware, mistakes are being made due to the lack of text on packets identifying the products inside. What isn’t helping is the fact that ITL are putting ’JPS’ on different brands within their range. JPS is a brand in its own right, so you have derivatives such as JPS Blue, JPS Green, JPS Silver etc."

ITL also produces Windsor Blue, Players and Gold Leaf tobacco, but insist on labelling them with the JPS prefix. So, you can have: JPS Superkings Green, JPS Windsor Blue Superkings Green, JPS Players Superkings Green etc.

An Imperial spokesperson said that as standardised packs hit the shelves it wanted to ensure customers can recall the heritage of its individual brands quickly.