The sorry tale of Bates v Post Office Ltd has a number of salutary lessons for IT suppliers and customers. In an age where businesses are placing ever greater reliance on computer systems to carry out business processes and to make decisions, and with AI technologies being put to ever greater use in analysis and decision making, it is worth taking a few moments to consider what can happen when the balance tips too far in favour of the technology.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE POST OFFICE CASE?
The Horizon system was a very big, complex IT system, provided by the Post Office for use by sub-postmasters in recording and filing their accounts. It was supplied to the Post Office by Fujitsu, and developed piece-meal over time. The Post Office alleged that some sub-postmasters were fiddling their accounts in relation to their branches, because it could not reconcile local branch accounts with the accounts produced by the Horizon system, and took action against them. That action resulted in some sub-postmasters being declared bankrupt, some losing their homes and livelihoods, and in some cases, being sent to prison. The Post Office refused to acknowledge the sub-postmasters' protestations that it was not them, but bugs and glitches in the Horizon system, which had resulted in the discrepancies in their accounts.
But in December last year, after a series of judgments on preliminary issues in a group litigation claim brought by the sub-postmasters (led by Mr Alan Bates), the Post Office finally agreed a settlement of £57.75 million in favour of the claimants. In one of the preliminary judgments, the court found that bugs in Horizon could have caused the discrepancies which the Post Office had blamed on the sub-postmasters. The judge in the case was so concerned about the evidence from the Post Office's IT supplier, Fujitsu, that he has passed a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions. In particular, there was evidence to indicate that Fujitsu was aware of bugs in Horizon which could cause discrepancies far earlier than they at first stated, but nothing was done to highlight this in the context of the ongoing allegations against the sub-postmasters.