Post Office scandal victim confronts minister over legal fees


A former subpostmaster made bankrupt after losing a legal battle with the Post Office before the Horizon scandal came to light has asked why he has paid so much in legal fees to receive compensation.

Lee Castleton, who was forced to declare bankruptcy in 2007 after being taken to court over an alleged £25,000 shortfall in his branch, confronted Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake over the crippling costs.

“Over the whole period, we’re currently looking at paying £2 in legal fees for every £1 in compensation," he told the minister on BBC Breakfast.

Castleton, from Bridlington, East Yorkshire, added: "It’s very adversarial, and people are talking about sitting in these meetings having to re-go through this criminal investigation.

"So having been through the criminalisation in the first place, and then having that overturned, then now having to go through every single T, to re-dot every I, and go every single receipt from 20 plus years ago. Why is that right for the taxpayer?"

Hollinrake responded: “You’re right Lee, lawyers are a fact of life, and they have an important role to play, of course, but we’re keen to try to reduce the legal argument over these processes... We need to simplify the process, take the common sense view. I’ve said to our officials, and to legal representatives, 'if it looks right, it is right, just settle it' – that’s what we need to do.”

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The pair's exchange on Monday morning comes as the public Horizon inquiry resumes this week, with Alan Bates, a leading campaigner in the subpostmasters' fight for justice, due to give evidence on Tuesday.

It also follows a series of secret recordings obtained by ITV News, one of which shows former Post Office boss Paula Vennells knew about faults with the service's Horizon IT system, designed by Fujitsu, at the same time staff were being prosecuted over alleged accounting shortfalls.

Former post office workers Lee Castleton (left) and Noel Thomas celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after their convictions wer overturned by the Court of Appeal. Thirty-nine former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office's defective Horizon accounting system have had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal. Issue date: Friday April 23, 2021.
Lee Castleton (left) with fellow former subpostmaster Noel Thomas outside the Royal Courts of Justice after their convictions were overturned in 2021. (Alamy) (Yui Mok, PA Images)

Another recording showed that the Post Office's most senior lawyer had been warned by independent investigators more than a decade ago that the postal service may have misled courts by assuming subpostmasters were guilty and not properly investigating their cases, leading to "wrongful and unsafe" convictions.

Responding to last week's revelations, senior Tory MP and former chancellor Nadhim Zahawi, who questioned Vennells in a select committee hearing in 2015, said the Post Office “has a case to answer for corporate manslaughter”.

At least four subpostmasters are said to have taken their own lives after being wrongly accused as a result of the scandal.

'People should go to jail over Horizon scandal', minister says

A special episode of BBC Breakfast was hosted on Monday in Fenny Compton, Warwickshire, where subpostmasters gathered to start their campaign for justice in 2009. Hollinrake, who heard from dozens of those affected by the Horizon IT Scandal, said that some of those responsible "should go to jail".

He said: "The inquiry is unearthing the evidence, what you see now is a result of the inquiry, the statutory inquiry. The Metropolitan Police are undertaking an investigation – the government doesn’t do that, the police do that.

“When evidence has been established, people should be prosecuted – that’s my view. And I think you, and other people I’ve spoken to, and I certainly feel, people within the Post Office, possibly further afield, should go to jail.

He added: “We have to go through a process, we believe in the rule of law – lots of people in this room, and other people, have not had the benefit of the rule of law.

“It has failed, failed these people, inexcusably. We do believe in process, that’s the country we are very proud to live in. But if the threshold is met, the evidence is there, where criminal prosecutions can be undertaken – and that those people are found guilty – I have no reservation in saying people should go to jail.”

London, England, UK. 13th Mar, 2024. Post Office Minister KEVIN HOLLINRAKE is seen in Westminster during morning media round. (Credit Image: © Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!
Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake agrees some people should go to prison over the scandal. (Alamy) (ZUMA Press, ZUMA Press, Inc.)

How much has the Post Office Horizon scandal cost?

Based on its current rate of spending, the Post Office was expected to have racked up a total of £390 in legal costs by the end of March.

That's more than twice as much as the £169m in compensation paid out so far by the government and Post Office.

Only half of the 4,300 victims caught up in the scandal have received final compensation, while more than 1,900 of the worst-affected victims are still waiting for a payout, The Times reported.

The "555 Group" of wrongly accused subpostmasters who staged a group litigation against the Post Office reached a jointly agreed settlement in December 2019. This included a £57.75m global payment as full and final redress.

"Whilst the settlement was jointly agreed in good faith as fair and appropriate in all the circumstances, subsequent media reports revealed that around £46m of the £57.75m global payment was directed to the claimants’ funders and legal advisors," the Post Office says on its website.

"We continually urged the government to address this unfairness."

In 2020, the Post Office established two other schemes for redress that were both open to current and former Postmasters.

Whether an exact total figure can ever be put on the scandal remains unclear, however, as some former subpostmasters died before ever having a chance to seek justice, and some of those who funnelled their own money into the system to make up for accounting black holes are still in debt.

In the case of Castleton, who represented himself in court as he couldn't afford a lawyer, he had to pay back his £25,000 shortfall and costs of £321,000, which left him bankrupt and forced him to sell his home.

In January, the government said it had set aside £1bn to fund compensation for victims. Under legislation introduced to address the issue, those who have had their convictions overturned can receive £600,000, or potentially more if they go through a process of having their claim assessed individually.