The Post Office Horizon Public Inquiry has re-started. Institutions under the spotlight are giving evidence.
So this seems a good time to pull ourselves back to what the Horizon scandal concerns: people.
One of those people, one of the hundreds of individuals running sub-Post Offices whose lives were ruined through no fault of their own, is Lee Castleton. The account that follows reflects his submissions to the Inquiry under an Impact Witness Statement from May 2022, and has been prepared with his approval.
In July 2003 Mr Castleton and his wife sold up their home and bought the Marine Drive Post Office in Bridlington, where they lived above the shop with their two small children. Castleton had had a successful career as a City stockbroker and in the RAF, and he and his wife were looking for a better work/life balance,
All in the business went well until the end of he year, when there was a misbalance of just over £1,000. Castleton made up the shortfall out of money from the retail side of the business. After investigation he found that he had made a correct declaration in his accounts of the value of stamps he held, but that in the computer record of his stamps the value of stamps stock had been reduced by the system (immediately after Castleton's declaration) to zero. This is one incident, but is symptomatic of the larger-scale problems for Castleton that later occurred. Do note the 'computer' mention - it is the 'Horizon' system, and was commissioned by the Post Office and installed and run by the global services provider, Fujitsu.
The misbalance issues continued, with 'odd happenings' on Horizon. Castleton could not understand them as they made no sense against his own analysis. Note his previous role, where numeracy capability was part of the job. He asked for help from the Post Office - 91 calls over 12 weeks - but found that they were not interested. What he wanted from the Post Office was transaction data that he could try to reconcile. The full information was not available to him, and when he did find out information it was (he only found this out later) incomplete.
Eventually Castleton secured an audit from the Post Office - by this time his relationship with his line manager thad broken down and he had been suspended. The audit confirmed the shortfalls between the Post Office (Horizon) records and Castleton's own records.
The Post Office's position was simple: the shortfalls were Castleton's fault and he needed to pay back the money owed to the Post Office. To add to this, the Post Office were pressurising Castleton to sell the business.
At a personal level, the pressure on Castleton's family had become extreme. With the cloud of imbalances hanging over their heads, Castleton and his wife had been spending their evenings working through paperwork to understand the issues, while trying to run the Post Office during the day. Word of the discrepancies had got out into the local community, where Castleton was being branded a thief, on one occasion being called a 'thieving bastard' in the street. Retail sales dropped significantly, and the bank withdrew the couple's overdraft. Nevertheless, they still laboured under the belief that they could find the fault and that all would then be ok.
Castleton went through an unsuccessful process to appeal against his suspension. The Post Office started writing debt recovery letters. They followed with proceedings in the Scarborough County Court. They dd not appear in Court, but Castleton did and so won his counterclaim. The Post Office appealed, and the proceedings were moved first to the Leeds County Court and then to the High Court in London. At this point members of Castleton's family were suffering mental health difficulties. Both of his children were being bullied at school. On a material level, Castleton was on the edge of bankruptcy.
When the (imperfect - see above) transaction data was provide to Castleton, he found that thousands of pounds of transactions had been placed on the system at a time when no one on his side had been logged on. The Post Office denied that anyone else had access to his account (something shown subsequently to be untrue).
By this stage Castleton had spent £80,000 on legal costs, had re-mortgaged his house to pay fees, and had exhausted his legal expenses insurance. There was going to be a trial, and he would have to defend himself.
The Post Office had solicitors, and were represented in Court by Counsel. Before the trial the Post Office's Counsel had tried to persuade Castleton not to appear. The solicitors reinforced this, making clear that if he went ahead the Post Office would ruin him.
Unsurprisingly Castleton lost the case. The Post Office were awarded £321,000 in costs, enough to put him into bankruptcy.
The family sold their home, enabling their mortgage to be cleared, but could only now afford rented accommodation. They moved away from Bridlington.
Castleton could not find employed work due to his bankrupt status. He renewed his electrical qualifications from the RAF and worked away from home on short-term contracts, often sleeping in his car. His wife was diagnosed with epilepsy; one of his daughters was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and subsequently nearly died.
In 2019 Castleton was a claimant in a group civil action against the Post Office. The group won. After deduction of fees and expenses for lawyers, insurers and litigation funders, Castleton's share of the compensation was £28,500. He thought that he might have a claim against the Post Office for malicious prosecution, but was advised that under the settlement deed for compensation he had given up this right.
As of May 2022 Csstleton was still in bankruptcy. He considers that when it was said on behalf of the Post Office that they would ruin him, then they were correct.
The accounting defects that Lee Castleton and hundreds of other individuals suffered from originated from the Horizon system. This is a complex story, and if you are not up to speed then you can learn a lot from the www.postofficescandal.uk website run by the journalist, Nick Wallis. Wallis has also written a very readable account of the scandal: 'The Great Post Office Scandal'.
There are serious issues to consider, covering amongst other things what the Post Office knew about the Horizon defects, the role of Fujitsu, and the behaviour towards the individuals of those representing the Post Office. Anyone corporately or individually towards whom the finger is pointed will no doubt defend their actions. But as more and more information is revealed to the Inquiry, there is a risk of the experience of those individuals running sub-Post Offices being lost in the morass.
Thus the importance of the story of Lee Castleton and many others not being overlooked.
The writer teaches professional ethics to junior lawyers and is a former Managing Partner of a City law firm.