Reporting the class action against the Post Office at the High Court
This is an email version of this blog post published on www.postofficetrial.com
Oh, hello. On day one of this trial, we have already had reference to an internal Post Office document (dated Jan 2017) which says Post Office IT is “not fit for purpose, expensive and difficult to change.” and “we need to quickly rationalise and resolve misaligned contracts enacted to support legacy IT, obsolescence, a lack of PO technical competence, particular focus on Fujitsu and Accenture.”
Post Office IT = Horizon
Fujitsu = the people who run Horizon for the Post Office
“The IT strategy outlined a view of the current state of technology within PO as failing to meet PO aspirations on any assessment lens.”
“The following highlights the current operational risk areas referred to earlier in the document and the initiatives underway or proposed… to migrate these into risk appetite:purple – severe risk, red - high risk, amber – within appetite but attention required”
In the words of the claimants’ QC, Patrick Green:
“your Lordship will note that the Horizon branch systems box is in red in the Post Office’s own internal document. ”
High Risk Horizon! Wonder why?! Wonder no further. This from an internal Post Office document dated 22 Oct 2016:
“Our back office also struggles with the complications of dealing differently with each of our many clients, heavily manual processes, reconciling disparate sources of data, retrospective financial controls and a lack of flexibility. This backlog of challenges, poor support contracts and a lack of skills have led to a prohibitive cost of change, preventing the about [sic] improvements that should occur as part of a business as usual.”
Mr Green also noted that 18 months previous to the above document, in response to a Second Sight query (the independent forensic accountants eventually fired by the Post Office in acrimony), the public position on Horizon was thus:
“Questions were raised about Post Office’s plans to change to a new system when the Post Office’s current contract with Fujitsu in respect of Horizon comes to an end in March 2017. “Post Office’s intention to move to a new system does not reflect any dissatisfaction or lack of confidence in Horizon. It is simply that the current contractual arrangements are due to expire.”
So Horizon is a high risk, not fit for purpose, pile of s***e, right?
Ah well – the answer, my friend, is not that simple. In the majestic words of the Post Office QC, Anthony de Garr Robinson:
“Over the period 2000 to 2018 the Post Office has had on average 13,650 branches. That means that over that period it has had more than 3 million sets of monthly branch accounts. It is nearly 3.1 million but let’s call it 3 million and let’s ignore the fact for the first few years branch accounts were weekly. That doesn’t matter for the purposes of this analysis. Against that background let’s take a substantial bug like the Suspense Account bug which affected 16 branches and had a mean financial impact per branch of £1,000. The chances of that bug affecting any branch is tiny. It is 16 in 3 million, or 1 in 190,000-odd. The chances of affecting a claimant branch are even tinier because the claimant branches tended to be smaller than ordinary branches. One could engage in all sorts of calculations, but your Lordship may recall from Dr Worden’s second report that he ends up with a calculation of a chance of about 1 in 427,000-odd. So for there to be a 1 in 10 chance for a bug of this scale to affect one set of monthly account for a claimant branch, one would need something like 42,000 such bugs. Of course there’s a much simpler way of doing it which really is just a straight calculation. There have been 3 million sets of monthly accounts so the chances of the Suspense Account bug affecting any given set of monthly accounts is 60 in 3 million or about 5 in a million, so to get a one in 10 chance of such a bug you would need to have 50,000 bugs like it. But, my Lord, all the roads lead to the same basic result which is that even for a significant bug of that sort, the number of bugs that would need to exist in order to have any chance of generating even a portion of the losses that are claimed by the claimants would be a wild number that’s beyond the dreams of avarice. It is untenable to suggest that there are 40,000 or 50,000 bugs of that scale going undetected in Horizon for 20 years.”
“the difference now being played out between the experts is at the margins. They accept that there are imperfections in the Horizon system with the result that in some rare cases bugs affecting branch accounts occur and will not be immediately fixed. The issue between them is how slight are the relevant imperfections. The scale of this difference is magnified by the adversarial process but in the scheme of things, in my submission, it is in fact tiny and to plagarise Lord Justice Lewison in section 1 of his first chapter in the interpretation of contracts, the lazy reader can stop here. My Lord, we say that what is already common ground between the parties means that the claimants must fail in their primary endeavour to persuade the court to draw the inference or make the presumption that they want the court to make or to draw or make, to the effect that when faced with a shortfall in a set of branch accounts the shortfall was caused by a bug in Horizon. ”
Indeed. So what’s been happening then? That, says Mr de Garr Robinson, is for another trial.
Mr Green started this morning with a complaint about the availability and delivery of information to the claimants. The Post Office, it seems, does not like to give up information without a fight. It appears to have a strategy of vehemently denying something is true or possible until it is forced to admit it is possible. Then its seeks to deny the thing it said was possible is relevant or that big a deal. It also likes to unload information when it is almost too late to do anything with.
The issue of remote access was discussed. As we know from the previous trial, the Post Office long insisted that remote access to branch accounts was impossible. Then, in 2016 it admitted it was possible, but only in very limited circumstances. In the run up to this trial, it considered the written evidence of Richard Roll, the Fujitsu whistleblower featured on Panorama, who said not only was it possible, it happened regularly whilst he worked there. The Post Office initially said Richard Roll was mistaken. Now it accepts Fujitsu technicians remotely accessed Post Office branch terminals on a regular basis. But, says the Post Office, the chances this kind of access could materially affect branch accounts is very unlikely.
And likeliness is what this trial seems to hinge on. Because Horizon is so vast and because it has been in service for so long, it would be a Sisyphean task to look for every error in Horizon and investigate whether or not it had materially affected branch accounts. So the arguments are about likelihood. The Post Office says it is deeply unlikely that any Horizon error caused material discrepancies in any of the claimants’ branch accounts. The claimants say the Post Office can’t possibly know that.
The second battleground in the trial is the robustness of Horizon. How robust a system was it in its various iterations down the years? The Post Office says its independent IT expert thinks it’s robust, with plenty of error-repellency built in, reducing the likelihood of errors. The JFSA independent expert says it’s so robust the likelihood of any errors directly affecting any of the claimants’ branch accounts is vanishingly small.
Link me up, baby
You can read it all yourself, if you want – the uncorrected and unperfected version of today’s transcript is here for your reading pleasure. Definitely do that.
I have also uploaded the written openings from both parties. You can read the claimants’ opening here and the Post Office’s defence here.
And if you want to see the live tweets from today, they’re here on twitter.
Over the next few days we will hear evidence from various former Subpostmasters who may have experienced problems with Horizon which materially affected their branch accounts. We will hear from the director of Second Sight, Ian Henderson and we will hear from Richard Roll himself.
PS You will note at the top of this blog post there is an exciting* photo of a Post Office logo. This is because I got bored of photographing the Rolls Building where this litigation is taking place. I have invited secret emailers to send me their photos of Post Office branding – signs, mugs, logos, letterheads etc etc. The results will be used to illustrate these blog posts over the next few weeks. If you have any to share, please contact me via the contact form on this website. Thanks.
* not very exciting.
Please feel free to forward this email. The more people who read it, the more people find out about what is the biggest trial going through the UK courts right now.