Is there justice on the Horizon?
Some 560 retailers (the ’claimants’) are hoping that their group action against Post Office Ltd (POL the ’defendant’) will bring them justice retailers who lost their livelihoods, reputations and in extreme cases their lives over accusations of false accounting using the Horizon system. Among those 500-plus claimants at the trial is Phil Cowan, whom I featured in this column in early 2017. Phil, a very experienced forecourt operator, was a subpostmaster for just three years (his wife actually ran the PO) when he was told there was a deficit of £30K in the end-of-week balancing. The office was shut on the spot and he was asked one question: How soon can you repay it?
He asked if there could be a glitch in the Horizon system and was told if so, it would be the only sub post office in the country to have such a problem (tell that to the other 560, whom, during the first phase of the trial, the PO referred to as a tiny minority).
Phil’s wife was charged with false accounting. With no PO, the retail side dwindled and he sold up at a substantial loss. The PO took their £30K out of a small redundancy offer.
Phil’s wife Fiona, who suffered from on and off bouts of depression, died of an accidental overdose. She was only 47.
Phil said: "I can’t prove it but I know the whole POL episode played a significant role in her demise. She went to her grave with this criminal charge hanging over her."
POL had never told them that the charges had been dropped.
On top of that POL gave the suspension story to the local press and Phil lost his lucrative bridging contract with Shell UK.
He subsequently joined the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance which culminated in the group action last month.
I’ve followed the trial quite closely and can easily see why it took the claimants’ lawyers well over a year to prepare for it. TV presenter and reporter Nick Wallis, who runs a crowd-funding site (postofficetrial.com) on behalf of the claimants, posted exhaustive live tweets from the trial as the lead witnesses told their similar stories of Horizon glitches, a useless helpline, money disappearing into thin air and, a very legal point around their contract, which the majority claim they never saw in the first place (it’s a very thick, unmissable document and subpostmasters are known for their close attention to detail).
POL’s legal team is basing its claim on the wording of the contract, which basically says the subpostmaster is responsible for any losses. The claimants say they have no access to the inner workings of Horizon so they were unable to find out how the losses happened. I have simplified this enormously. As Nick Wallis has reported, this case has generated vast tranches of data. If the judge doesn’t have a headache before coming to a judgement on what is known as the Common Issues trial later this month, I’ll have one for him. Then there will be a second trial, likely in March, which will see computer experts thrash it out over the Horizon accounting system.
A cool conclusion for fridge problem
In the previous issue I recounted Farhang Arabpour’s ongoing problems with Scottish Power at his Central Avenue Service Station in Nuneaton. He had had other problems as well a whole run of bad luck.
The landlord had told him that all the equipment belonged to him (the landlord) and that he had a 20-year warranty for all the fridges. The fridges are about five years old. Three of these broke down and refrigeration company Jordon came out and had a look but didn’t do any repairs as the warranty couldn’t be applied.
I contacted Jordon’s and Paul Jordon said they had told Farhang that the call-out charge was £85 plus vat for the first hour on site. Jordon’s also had had a letter from the landlord saying he no longer had liability.
"Our order form clearly states five years’ warranty so I am somewhat concerned that the new owner of the business has been advised he has a 20-year warranty," said Paul Jordon. "It sounds to me as though Farhang has been given some false assurances from the previous owners. We are happy to waive the initial call-out fee to Farhang as a goodwill gesture and offer a reduction in the repair of 25% ."
Sounds like the best outcome to me. In all the 23 years of writing this column this is the first time I have ever had a call about Jordon’s.