The lives of former subpostmaster Lee Castleton and his family were knowingly destroyed by Post Office executives because they wanted to set an example that would deter further subpostmasters from questioning the reliability of its computer system, according to evidence presented to the Post Office scandal inquiry.
In 2006, when his branch showed a loss of £26,000 that he could not explain, the Post Office demanded that Castleton made up the shortfall.
Castleton always said the losses in his accounts were caused by computer errors, but had no way of proving this at the time.
He was so concerned about the debt that he refused to pay it back, and decided to go to court to contest the Post Office’s insistence that he should pay.
The Post Office threw everything at the legal challenge brought by Castleton and the court ruled that the debt was real, not illusory as Castleton argued. Post Office witnesses in his case said there was no evidence of any problem with the system and that they were unable to identify any basis upon which the Horizon system could have caused Castleton’s losses.
“The losses must have been caused by his own error or that of his assistants,” the judge said in 2007. “It is inescapable that the Horizon system was working properly in all material respects.”
The judge in Castleton’s case awarded the Post Office damages of approximately £26,000, the amount of the unexplained loss, and costs of £321,000, which bankrupted Castleton.
It has now emerged in the inquiry that the Post Office sought to use the Castleton case to “send a clear message” to other subpostmasters that it would take a firm line on those raising similar allegations.
Castleton is one of thousands of subpostmasters blamed for unexplained shortfalls in their branch accounts. They were made to repay them, despite many believing that the errors were caused by the Horizon system. Many subpostmasters were made bankrupt by the process and over 730 were convicted of crimes including fraud and theft.
Castleton was one of seven former subpostmasters interviewed by Computer Weekly in a 2009 investigation.
After the introduction of the Horizon computer system from Fujitsu in 2000 to automate largely manual processes, subpostmasters started having trouble balancing their accounts. When challenged, the Post Office denied that computer errors existed and told each of the subpostmasters individually that they were the only ones having problems. Had Castleton won his case, this false Post Office claim would have been exposed.
It was not until the High Court in 2019 that victims proved that errors in the Horizon system were indeed to blame.
Despite its knowledge of errors in the system when it was rolled out, the Post Office not only hid them, but did everything it could to stop the errors from being revealed in court.
Documents revealed during recent hearings in the Post Office Horizon public inquiry have shed light on the Post Office’s strategy to use all its powers to crush Castleton in court to deter others from challenging the Post Office over alleged computer errors.
The current phase of the statutory public inquiry into what is now known as the Post Office Horizon Scandal recently learned the lengths that the Post Office was willing to go to, to stop Castleton from winning in court and proving the Horizon system was flawed.
During a recent hearing, barrister Flora Page, representing former subpostmasters affected by the Horizon scandal, referred to a document which will appear in the inquiry at a later date.
“What we now know from documents in this inquiry, which haven’t yet been picked over, but which I can quote to you briefly…”
Quoting the document, Page said there was a clear intent on the part of the Post Office with legal advice to defeat Castleton in court and claim heavy costs, “Not to make a net financial recovery, but to defend the Horizon system and hopefully send a clear message to other subpostmasters that the Post Office will take a firm line and to deter others from raising similar allegations”.
Page told the inquiry: “So that was the purpose. It was not ever envisaged that the Post Office would actually get that costs order back – that was a loss leader, if you like. But the purpose was to send a clear message to deter others.”
The document is expected to appear later, when the reasons and motivation for the proceedings against Castleton, and the conduct of those proceedings, will be examined.
Page said Castleton “lost everything he’d invested in his branch, he lost his living, his family were treated like thieves, and they endured years of hardship”.
Castleton told Computer Weekly: “I want the name of the person who decided to do this to be made public by the inquiry, because that person made terrible decisions that caused so many consequences to my family. I can’t tell you how painful the journey has been for the last 20 years.”
At the time of his challenge to the Post Office, it was determined that one system flaw, known as the Calendar Square bug, was not revealed to Castleton’s legal team.
In a recent inquiry hearing, an email from December 2006, sent from a Post Office executive involved in dispute resolution to an executive from Horizon supplier Fujitsu, was marked “Calendar Square: URGENT”.
The email read: “Our legal team at the court will be doing their best to persuade the court not to allow [Lee] Castleton to call this evidence because it is filed late and does not relate to the problems at his branch. If they are successful there will be no need to progress further with these investigations, but as Castleton is a litigant in person it is common for judges to be sympathetic and may allow him to rely on this evidence. If so you will have to pull out all the stops to investigate what, if anything, went wrong at these branches and why we can distinguish them from Mr Castleton at [his branch].”
Castleton said: “Seeing these documents in the inquiry makes me sick. All this pain and anguish we have been through as a family, and now we know that this was hidden by the Post Office. They have continued to do this over the years to make it difficult for everybody. If only they had been open and honest from the start, we could have got to the bottom of this and it would have been less painful for everybody.”