Court hears claims of innocence for Shrewsbury postmistress
A hearing which could be crucial in helping a former Shrewsbury-postmistress clear her name against theft allegations has opened at London's High Court.
Mr Justice Fraser this week heard the opening submissions of a group action by more than 500 sub-postmasters who claim a computer glitch created shortfalls in their accounts.
Former Shrewsbury sub-postmistress Rubbina Shaheen is fighting to have her conviction overturned after being jailed for false accounting in 2010.
Mrs Shaheen, who kept Greenfields Post Office, was initially charged with stealing £43,000 from the business.
The Post Office agreed to withdraw the theft allegation on condition she pleaded guilty to false accounting, and she was jailed for 12 months at Shrewsbury Crown Court.
But since her release from prison, Mrs Shaheen has protested her innocence, insisting that the shortfall was caused by the controversial Horizon computer system which logs all transactions at post office branches across the country.
She has lodged a claim with the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and is now awaiting a decision on whether her case will go before the Court of Appeal.
While Mrs Shaheen, who kept Greenfields Post Office, is not part of the group action which opened yesterday, the outcome could be crucial to her own case.
The group action, led by former Llandudno sub-postmaster Alan Bates, also centres around claims that Horizon contained a large number of software defects which caused shortfalls in the accounts.
The Post Office argues that Horizon, introduced in 1999 and 2000, worked perfectly adequately and suggest the claimants are attempting to avoid their responsibility for losses by "trying to rewrite the legal relationship between the Post Office and its sub-postmasters".
During Wednesday's opening, the judge heard submissions on the first of at least three trials in a case where total legal costs are already more than £10 million.
In the first trial, the judge will determine key issues relating to the contractual relationship between the claimants and the Post Office, including whether any contract terms were unfair so as to be unenforceable.
The claimants allege the Horizon system caused shortfalls in their financial accounts, which led to some being made bankrupt while others were prosecuted and even jailed for offences including false accounting, fraud and theft.
They accuse the Post Office of failing to provide adequate training in the use of Horizon, for failing to investigate the cause of alleged shortfalls and also of misleading them about the reliability of the system.
However, the Post Office submits that "sub-postmasters are responsible for the conduct of transactions and the security of cash and stock in their branches", adding that many of the claimants' allegations are "speculative".
It suggests that the claimants' case is an "ambitious attempt to invert the legal relationship between the parties".
The Post Office also argues that the burden of proof is on the claimants to demonstrate that "any of the shortfalls for which they were held responsible were Horizon-generated shortfalls".
Ahead of the hearing, Mr Bates said: "I'm pleased that the trial is finally starting and very much hope it will bring resolution for the more than 500 postmasters who are the claimants in this action, all of whom have waited many years for this day to come."
A Post Office spokeswoman before the case: "The Post Office will be robustly defending its position in the court and welcomes the opportunity to do so."
She added: "It's important to note that the claimants represent a very small proportion – 0.01 per cent – of users of our Horizon computer system users since 2000."
The case continues.