Government was aware of Post Office strategy to fight subpostmasters

The government was aware of the Post Office’s decision to call on the judge to remove himself from managing its High Court battle with subpostmasters, Paula Vennells has told the public inquiry.

During the latest Post Office scandal hearing, former Post Office CEO Vennells was asked whether the government was aware of the Post Office’s controversial strategy to attempt to remove a High Court judge during the multimillion-pound group litigation order (GLO), after the judge criticised the Post Office during the initial phase of the trial.

In March 2019, the trial was suspended when the Post Office questioned the impartiality of managing judge Justice Peter Fraser. Its legal team called for Fraser 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 to force the subpostmasters to settle the case. The Post Office, which is owned by UK taxpayers, also appealed a major judgement in the trial and spent over £100m on legal costs in an attempt to shut down the former subpostmasters’ claim.

Subpostmasters were attempting to prove that errors in the Horizon computer system caused unexplained shortfalls for which they were blamed, and the recusal application came after damning evidence had emerged over the course of the court battle, which began in November 2018. 

During the latest public inquiry hearing, Vennells was asked about the Post Office’s relationship with the government. She said from 2012, after the Post Office split from Royal Mail, there was always a senior member of the civil service at board meetings. The government had not responded to Computer Weekly questions when this article was published.

Vennells was asked, by inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC, whether the government was aware of the facts of the GLO and the Post Office’s strategy during the case, including its attempt to remove Judge Fraser from his role.

She said she believes the government was aware and that she was on the call where the decision to proceed with the recusal application was made, although she had left the conference call before that issue was addressed. She said the government representative on the Post Office board, Tom Cooper, had recused himself from the recusal application decision.

Fraser rejected the application and the Court of Appeal subsequently 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.”

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 fight for justice, 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 now known as the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Vennells also said, when asked, that she was sure the government was aware of the views of campaigner Alan Bates and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) that he set up.

She said she believed the government was aware of the activities of former MP Lord James Arbuthnot in relation to supporting campaigning subpostmasters, as well as the work done by forensic accountants Second Sight in investigating Horizon.

Bates, chairman of the JFSA, told Computer Weekly: “We have always suspected it, but now it has been confirmed that the government approved so much of the Post Office’s strategy. The big question is whether the Post Office could have fought against us for so long without government approval.”

The Post Office Horizon scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see below timeline of all Computer Weekly articles about the Horizon scandal, since 2009).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

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