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Subpostmaster compensation deadline will be missed, warns public inquiry chair

Compensation owed to victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal will not be paid to all by the deadline in just over a year, warned the public inquiry chair, who called on the government to legislate to extend the legal deadline for payments to be agreed paid to claimants.

Following the warning, the former subpostmaster – who chairs a campaign group of subpostmasters that exposed the Horizon scandal and led to the creation of compensation schemes – accused the Post Office of “failing to disclose information needed by claimants to make their claims”.

In his interim report to government on the compensation payments to former subpostmasters, Post Office Horizon scandal public inquiry chair Wyn Williams described the three current compensation schemes in operation as a being like a “patchwork quilt with some holes in it”.

In 2009, a Computer Weekly investigation first revealed that subpostmasters were being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls, which they believed to be caused by software errors. Hundreds were prosecuted, with many sent to prison. Thousands suffered financial ruin after being blamed for accounting shortfalls that actually caused by errors in the computer system they use in branches.

Since a High Court trial in 2019, proved that the software they use in branches was to blame for the losses, compensation schemes have been established. But Williams said some claimants in one of the schemes, the Group Litigation Orders Scheme (GLOS), will not receive the compensation owed to them by the 7 August 2024 deadline set in law by the government.

“On any reasonable view, there is a clear risk that final compensation payments under GLOS will not be delivered to each applicant by [the deadline]. My current and strongly held view is that the scheme administrators will be unable to deliver compensation payments to all applicants to GLOS by 7 August 2024.”  

There are around 500 people in the GLOS. This scheme was established later than other schemes, known as the Historic Shortfalls scheme (HSS) and the Overturned Historic Convictions Scheme (OHCS).

Following the latest interim report, Alan Bates, the man who led a group of more than 500 former subpostmasters to expose the Post Office Horizon IT scandal, put the blame for the GLO claimants being at the “back of the queue” firmly on “the Post Office’s inability to cope with disclosing and providing the case details it holds on the victims”.

This comes after the Post Office’s repeated failures to disclose documents to the public inquiry saw Williams threaten “criminal sanctions” against the Post Office if it continues with ongoing “significant failures” in disclosing evidence.

Bates added: “The Post Office has failed full disclosure to the courts, it has failed disclosure with the inquiry, and worst of all it’s now failed the victims who continue to suffer and are desperately waiting to get on with their lives. Who is to blame for letting this go on without end? It has to be the fault of government, the sole shareholder of Post Office. So, instead of handing out huge bonuses at Post Office, try handing out P45s, I bet that works.”

The announcement from Williams was no surprise to Bates, who told Computer Weekly in May this year that GLOS claimants will not receive full compensation until 2025.

Members of GLOS form the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) established by Bates in 2009, who successfully sued the Post Office in the High Court in 2019, thereby exposing the truth about the faulty software which caused phantom account shortfalls that the subpostmasters had been blamed and punished for.

After their court victory, they were awarded £58m in damages, but after their legal costs – provided by a litigation funder that requires repayment with interest – were taken out, they were left with just £11m to share. This left people who had lost homes, businesses and huge sums of money, with an average of a few thousand pounds each.

The judgments in the High Court also case triggered the unravelling of one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British history. So far, 86 former subpostmasters have had wrongful convictions for theft and fraud overturned. They also forced the Post Office and its government owner to establish a compensation scheme for victims of the scandal, the HSS scheme and the OHCS.

But the GLO claimants were excluded from the Post Office compensation scheme set up as a result of their court victory. The government refused to pay them fair compensation, claiming they had already received compensation as part of the settlement. However, a U-turn saw a new GLO compensation scheme for final payments finally announced in March 2022, and GLOS was launched this year. Its goal is to return victims to the financial position they would have been in had the scandal not happened.

In January last year, Computer Weekly revealed that the Post Office has received over £1bn in taxpayer subsidies for its Horizon scandal compensation scheme.

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