Post Office v Castleton – a second category Abuse of Process?

Lee Castleton

An extraordinary piece of evidence has been raised at the Post Office Horizon Inquiry. It came during the day long car crash which was Andrew Winn’s testimony.

Winn was a hopelessly over-promoted former postie who eventually fetched up reporting to the Post Office’s Head of Product and Branch Accounting, Rod Ismay (author of the infamous Ismay report).

Winn admitted he was completely unsuitable for the role he found himself in, which required a detailed knowledge of the Horizon IT system (he had almost none).

More on Mr Winn here. I want to draw your attention to a document mentioned by Flora Page, barrister for several Postmasters, towards the end of Mr Winn’s evidence. It concerns Lee Castleton, who in 2007 was taken to the High Court by the Post Office and bankrupted.

In 2003, Lee was the Subpostmaster at East Bridlington Post Office in Yorkshire. He had served in the RAF and worked briefly in the City of London as a stockbroker. He was comfortable with numbers. 

Lee had invested his savings in the Post Office business and, with his wife and young family, was making a go of it. Over a twelve week period starting in January 2004, the Horizon system at East Bridlington went haywire, randomly chalking up negative discrepancies in the thousands. Whilst this was happening, Lee repeatedly asked the Post Office for help, complaining that his Horizon system was malfunctioning. None was forthcoming. On 23 March 2004, there was an audit. A discrepancy of £22,963.34 was found. The branch was closed, Lee was suspended, and he was told to repay the discrepancy under the terms of his contract.

Going to Court

Lee refused. He did not see why he should hand over £22,963.34 of his own money to fill a computer-generated hole in his branch accounts. The Post Office sacked Lee and sued him in the civil courts. On the appointed day at Scarborough County Court, Lee arrived, prepped and ready, with his legal advisor. The Post Office didn’t show. The judge dismissed the case and awarded Lee damages on his counter-claim.

After months of silence, the Post Office re-raised their case at the High Court. We have not, until yesterday, had any unequivocal understanding as to why. Lee had no income, and no assets, save the now closed Post Office and his mortgaged home above it.

Bringing a case at the High Court is astronomically expensive. There was no way the Post Office would recover their costs from a penniless former Subpostmaster.

By this stage, Lee had run out of legal insurance. He defended himself, and lost on the basis he had signed for his accounts and therefore legally accepted responsibility for them, even whilst challenging the alleged debt. 

The judge also took evidence from Anne Chambers, a Fujitsu engineer (currently under police investigation). The judge accepted her evidence and ruled:

the logic of the system is correct, the conclusion is inescapable that the Horizon system was working properly in all material respects, and that the shortfall of £22,963.34 is real, not illusory.

par 11, Post Office Ltd v Castleton [2007] EWHC 5 (QB) (22 January 2007)

Lee Castleton’s name forms the opening two words to Rebecca Thomson’s groundbreaking investigation into the Post Office Horizon IT system for Computer Weekly. He is a heroic campaigner, and was one of the 555 Subpostmasters who took the Post Office to court in Bates v Post Office. Due to his experience of being bankrupted, Lee has not received anything like the compensation he is due. It is only this month he will be able to apply for compensation under the government’s new GLO scheme for Postmasters.

Sending a Clear Message

It has long being suspected that the Post Office took Lee to the High Court to make an example of him. On Friday we got the first hint that documentary evidence exists to support this suspicion.

Mr Winn had spent much of the day being questioned by the lead barrister to the Inquiry, Jason Beer KC. At the end of his evidence, Flora Page had the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

During this, Page said:

What we now know from documents in this Inquiry… is that there was a clear intent on the part of the Post Office, with legal advice, to pursue the claim: “not to make a net financial recovery but to defend the Horizon System and hopefully send a clear message to other SPMs that the PO will take a firm line and to deter others from raising similar allegations.”

The document Ms Page was referring to was not placed (at her request) on the inquiry screens, but it appears to suggest that the widely-held suspicion is correct. The Post Office ruined Lee Castleton pour encourager les autres. Not to recover the £22,963.34 they said he owed them.

Of course, the judgment could have gone against the Post Office. Lee, representing himself, could have persuaded the judge that Horizon was not working properly and that he did not owe the Post Office any money, but His Honour Judge Richard Havery QC was having none of it.

The testimony of witnesses Lee found who gave examples of Horizon going wrong were dismissed. Anne Chambers, the Fujitsu expert witness who told the judge there was nothing wrong with Horizon at Lee’s branch, was believed. This, as we now know, was incorrect. The inquiry is bringing to light a significant amount of evidence to suggest that even in 2007, the Post Office knew it was incorrect too. More on that to come, no doubt.

If you’d like to read more about Mr Castleton’s case, do have a look at Paul Marshall’s careful evisceration of HHJ Havery’s judgment in his lengthy, but excellent essay The Harm That Judges Do.

My work on the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry is crowdfunded. If you’d like to contribute, please click on the widget you should be seeing to the right of this text (or below if you’re reading it on a mobile). To find out more before donating, please go to my tip jar web page. All contributors will be added to the ‘secret’ email newsletter, which offers irregular, and at times, irreverent insight into the machinations of the inquiry and the wider scandal.

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2 responses to “Post Office v Castleton – a second category Abuse of Process?”

  1. As a Francophone, would suggest that the aim, strictly speaking, was more a case of ‘pour décourager les autres’ (or even ‘pour désespérer les autres’) since ‘les encouragés’ would be POL and Fujitsu staff, but no quibbles with your conclusions.

  2. […] on the basis that she gave evidence in the Post Office’s High Court civil prosecution of Lee Castleton, the former East Bridlington Subpostmaster whose name consists the first two words of Computer Weekly’s seminal first investigation into […]

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