Former staff to sue Post Office over accusations that left many jobless and with criminal records.
More than 1,000 subpostmasters who claim they were wrongly accused of theft or false accounting could join a class action against the Post Office to clear their names.
The case could result in a payout of tens of millions to the subpostmasters, who say that a faulty IT system led to accounting shortfalls. Many lost their jobs and were forced to pay back thousands of pounds that had gone missing from their branches, while some were given prison sentences.
The legal firm Freeths, which is leading the action, said hundreds of current and former subpostmasters had come forward since a group litigation order was granted in January, and that many more might do so before the deadline of 26 July.
“Our claim goes back to 1999, the year when the Horizon IT system was installed. There are thousands and thousands of subpostmasters out there who may be entitled to join the group claim … the potential pool of claimants is very significant, but we just don’t know how many people will come forward over the next few months,” said James Hartley, a partner with Freeths.
The claimant group says that the Post Office failed in its legal duty because it held subpostmasters responsible for financial losses before properly investigating shortfalls and failed to inform individuals that their cases were not isolated incidents.
It is also claimed that Post Office personnel harassed the subpostmasters involved – alleged incidents include Post Office employers acting aggressively while interrogating subpostmasters, and searching individuals’ homes. A review by forensic accountants Second Sight, published in 2015, found the Post Office had failed to investigate irregularities at sub-post offices before launching civil and criminal inquiries.
Alan Bates, who set up the campaign group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance after his contract with the Post Office ended in 2003, hoped the case would bring the Post Office to account. “We want to expose the truth. They’ve had more than one opportunity to come forward and put their hands up and say ‘look, we know there’s things that we’ve not got right’, but we’re going to have to do that through the courts. We just want it known how badly the Post Office has treated people. They’ve ruined lives the length and breadth of this country. It’s not just one person – the subpostmaster – who’s affected, it’s whole families.”