The man who led a group of over 500 former subpostmasters that exposed the Post Office Horizon IT scandal fears victims will not receive full compensation until 2025 because the government scheme to pay them lacks drive and is “bogged down in bureaucracy”.
He accuses the Post Office of failing to disclose information vital to the legal representatives of the scandal victims.
Alan Bates formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) campaign group in 2009. Its members were subpostmasters who had suffered great hardship as a result of errors in branch software that caused unexplained losses and the Post Office’s brutal way of dealing with the issue.
Following the introduction of software from Fujitsu in 2000 to automate mainly manual practices in Post Office branches, subpostmasters began suffering unexplained shortfalls in their accounts. Subpostmasters were blamed for the shortfalls, which didn’t actually exist, and had to repay them. More than 700 were prosecuted for financial crimes, with many serving prison sentences. Thousands more suffered life-changing hardship as a result of failed businesses and repaying unexplained shortfalls.
In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation first revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which they believed to be caused by software errors (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles at foot of article).
A decade later, the JFSA took the Post Office to the High Court in a Group Litigation Order (GLO) and exposed the truth about the faulty software, which up until that point the Post Office had claimed was error-free.
The judgments in the High Court case, which was paid for by the victims, also triggered the unravelling of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history. So far, 86 former subpostmasters have had wrongful convictions for theft and fraud overturned.
Thousands of subpostmasters affected by the faulty software received compensation payments through the Historic Shortfalls Scheme that the Post Office was forced to set up after its loss in court. However, the 555 JFSA members who took the Post Office to court, known as GLO claimants, were excluded from this scheme, having already been awarded £58m in damages.
But once their legal costs – provided by a litigation funder that requires repayment with interest – were taken out, the GLO claimants were left with £11m to share. This left people who had lost homes, businesses and huge sums of money with an average of a few thousand pounds each.
Most JFSA members have now received interim compensation, but Bates has written to over 500 members, many of whom have suffered for about 20 years, expressing his belief that final payments are unlikely to be paid for up to two more years.
Bates, who recently turned down an OBE for his monumental achievements, wrote: “Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you deserve to know the truth about where I understand matters to currently stand. At present, I can’t see final offers in the GLO compensation scheme being made until well into 2025 as the whole scheme seems bogged down in bureaucracy, and there seems no willingness to drive the scheme through.
“Since [it was launched], the scheme seems to have been bogged down by bureaucracy or has stalled, either intentionally or not, in a number of areas. The one of most concern is disclosure, or lack of, by the Post Office, i.e. the disclosure of the information it holds on you.”
Alan Bates, JFSA
Bates added: “Of all the processes a claim has to go through, why on earth disclosure of all the details the Post Office holds on you should become such a seemingly insurmountable problem, I have no idea, it makes no sense, other than it is either abject incompetence (Post Office incompetent?) or for some other reason they don’t want to hand over what they have on you.
“The failure of the Post Office to provide disclosure on your case is holding up your lawyer from working on your claim as there is very little the lawyers can do until they receive the disclosure documents, and I know all your law firms have been chasing the disclosure issue for months without any success.”
In his JFSA circular, Bates recommended the Post Office be given four weeks to provide whatever disclosure it holds on each subpostmaster case, after which, if it is unable to provide evidence to refute a claim, benefit of the doubt should be given to the claimant.
Bates told JFSA members there had also been slow progress on deciding the types of losses victims could claim for and their values, known as the Heads of Claim.
“I think we have all been patient enough now and we have given all those responsible more than enough time to move this forward, but all they seem to have done is sit on it, so it’s time for our voices to be heard once again,” wrote Bates.
He said JFSA members should contact their MPs and share their frustrations with them.
“We will get there eventually, but like you, I don’t want to be waiting until 2025,” Bates concluded in his group circular.
In January 2022, Computer Weekly revealed that the government-owned Post Office had received subsidies worth over £1bn in 2021, in a scheme labelled Post Office Historical Matters Compensation.
The government had not responded to questions from ComputerWeekly at the time this article was published.