The chair of the statutory public inquiry into the Horizon Scandal has made clear he will investigate whether the 555 former subpostmasters that took the Post Office to court will get fair compensation.
This follows the chair of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) withdrawing the campaign group’s core participant status.
The JFSA members have so far been excluded from any compensation scheme, beyond what was awarded to them after they took the Post Office to court and proved that financial shortfalls were caused by a Post Office computer system, not them.
In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation first revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which many suspected were caused by the computer system they use to do accounts. (See below for timeline of Computer Weekly stories about the scandal.) They had to cover shortfalls with their own money and many were bankrupted. There were also 736 prosecutions of former subpostmasters for financial crimes, with many sent to prison.
When the public inquiry chair announced the final list of issues that the inquiry would cover, it said financial redress for victims would be included, but it was not explicit whether this included the 555 that took the Post Office to court and won.
After their victory in a multi-million pound group litigation, the 555 former subpostmasters were awarded £57.75m compensation. However, due to the need for litigation funding to fight a government-owned organisation prepared to spend over £100m, the subpostmasters were left with just £11m.
When distributed to the victims, this did not even cover the money many had paid the Post Office to cover unexplained losses.
The Post Office was forced, as part of the settlement, to open a compensation scheme for any subpostmasters affected by the Horizon system errors, but it excluded that it took them to court. The Post Office and government repeatedly state the money awarded on settlement was full and final. The court case has also led to subpostmasters having grounds to appeal criminal convictions related to the unexplained losses. So far, 72 subpostmasters that received criminal convictions for false accounting or theft have had convictions overturned. The government has promised each of them £100,000 interim compensation.
None of this would have happened without the JFSA and the High Court victory.
The JFSA has always stated that its first demand from the inquiry is to get fair compensation for its members. This includes paying back their £46m legal costs, all the money paid back by subpostmasters to cover losses that didn’t actually exist, and compensation for losses and suffering over the years since members were wrongly blamed for accounting errors.
Last week, Alan Bates, who formed the JFSA in 2009, asked members to withdraw their support for the inquiry while it is not clear whether fair financial redress for them is included.
Following the JFSA’s withdrawal from core participation, the inquiry wrote to the campaign group to confirm it would include its members’ financial redress in the inquiry.
It said: “On behalf of the chair, Sir Wyn Williams, I can confirm that paragraph 183 of the Inquiry’s List of Issues is intended to consider whether all affected sub-postmasters, sub-postmistresses, managers, assistants, including the 555 Claimants in the group litigation of Alan Bates and Others vs Post Office case were adequately compensated for the wrongs they had suffered.”
Bates wrote to JFSA members: “It could just be a coincidence that the statement appeared after the JFSA had withdrawn and was encouraging others to join with it, because the issue of the financial redress for the group had been missing from the final List of Issues, or it may just have been a failure to clarify that point when [the list] was written. You decide, but now it’s there, in writing.”