The Post Office has announced that it will be launching a mediation scheme for sub-postmasters to resolve complaints about its Fujitsu-built IT system.
The Horizon point of sale system has been the source of much controversy over allegedly problematic accounting – resulting in heavily disputed legal battles with sub-postmasters who claim that they have been wrongly accused of fraud. Some sub-postmasters have been sent to jail over the claims.
An independent investigation into the system was launched after MPs, led by Rt Hon James Arbuthnot, put pressure on the Post Office to answer the complaints. Headed up by forensic accountants Second Sight, the investigation has so far not found any system wide (systemic) problems with Horizon, but did reveal that software faults in 2011 and 2012 led to shortfalls of £9,000 at 76 branches – these were refunded.
However, for the first time a scheme has been developed by the Post Office, Second Sight and the Justice for Sub-Postmasters Alliance (JSFA) to allow sub-postmasters to have their individual cases investigated and hopefully resolved.
Tadge Channer, a Shoosmiths Access Legal solicitor assisting sub-postmasters (SPMs) who claim deficiencies in the Post Office Horizon computerised accounts system were to blame for accounting irregularities, has urged those involved to not miss the chance to have their disputes looked into.
"We welcome the announcement of the mediation scheme by the Post Office. We have long argued that it is necessary to fully investigate what has happened to so many sub-postmasters,” said Tadge.
“We will be providing assistance for sub-postmasters who seek compensation through the mediation scheme and I would urge any former SPMs who wish to seek compensation to complete the application form by the 18th November 2013 deadline to begin the process."
However, Channer also believes that the mediation scheme has been designed to allow for a ‘swift resolution’ and has said that he hopes that this won't prevent each case from undergoing a detailed examination as to what happened.
He said: “Our hope is that each of those sub-postmasters who have contacted us can be properly compensated for what they have been through and the losses they have incurred through this mediation and that we will avoid the need for litigation in this matter.”
Application forms for the scheme can be accessed via the JFSA website, where it states that it is highly advisable that before sub-postmasters begin the process they have all supporting documentation to hand. This is because once the application is begun sub-postmasters will only have four weeks to prepare a detailed submission, which is “time you don’t want to waste waiting for documents to be returned from solicitors or where else they might be”, says the website.
The JFSA has said that anyone who believes they have a case should apply and also notify their local MP when they do so.
Computerworld UK spoke to the JFSA’s chairman, Alan Bates, who said that he is pleased with the formation of the scheme and that there “must be a realisation” from the Post Office that there’s a need for it.
“We’ve been involved in setting this up. It’s a way forward for everyone and it speaks for itself,” said Bates.
“It’s a start, it’s going to take a number of months to roll though, but I think at the end of the day if the findings are made available it will be quite interesting."
He added: “It is a process and it gives people an opportunity, whereas there was total denial at one point from the Post Office, so we’ve moved a long way from there.”
Bates said that he has already sent out 200 applications to sub-postmasters for their submission, and added that a number of downloads have been made via the JFSA website too.
Commenting on the launch of the scheme, Angela van den Bogerd Post Office Head of Partnerships said: “The Post Office is committed to addressing any outstanding concerns among sub-postmasters swiftly and transparently.
“[The] independent mediation scheme we are announcing today will provide an effective way to assess and address any outstanding cases where sub-postmasters feel they have been unfairly treated.
She added: “Subpostmasters are the lifeblood of our business and we take their concerns extremely seriously. We hope the package of measures we are announcing will demonstrate our commitment to working closely with them to further improve our network.”