The life of former Deputy Postmaster Lee Castleton and his family was knowingly destroyed by Postmasters because they wanted to set an example that would deter other Deputy Postmasters from questioning the reliability of its computer system, according to evidence presented to the inquiry into the postal scandal.
In 2006, when his branch showed a loss of £26,000 which he could not explain, the Post Office demanded that Castleton make up the shortfall.
Castleton has always said the losses in its accounts were caused by computer errors, but had no way to prove it at the time.
He was so concerned about the debt that he refused to pay it and decided to go to court to challenge the Post Office’s insistence that he pay it.
The Post Office threw everything into the legal challenge brought by Castleton and the court ruled that the debt was real and not illusory as argued by Castleton. Post office witnesses in his case said there was no evidence of a problem with the system and they were unable to identify any basis on which the Horizon system could have cause Castleton’s losses.
“The losses must have been caused by his own error or that of his assistants,” Judge said in 2007. “There is no denying that the Horizon system was functioning properly in all material respects.”
The judge in the Castleton case awarded the Post Office damages of around £26,000, the amount of the unexplained loss and costs of £321,000, which put Castleton out of business.
It has now emerged in the inquest that the Post Office sought to use the Castleton case to ‘send a clear message’ to other postmasters that it would take a hard line on those raising similar allegations.
Castleton is one of thousands of sub-postmasters charged with unexplained shortfalls in their branch accounts. They were forced to refund them, even though many thought the errors were caused by the Horizon system. Many postmasters were bankrupted by the process and more than 730 were convicted of crimes including fraud and theft.
Castleton was one of seven former sub-postmasters interviewed by Computer Weekly in a 2009 survey.
After Fujitsu’s Horizon computer system was introduced in 2000 to automate largely manual processes, sub-postmasters began to struggle to balance their books. When challenged, the post office denied any computer errors and told each of the deputy postmasters individually that they were the only ones having problems. If Castleton had won his case, this false post office claim would have come to light.
It took until the High Court in 2019 for the victims proven that errors in the Horizon system were indeed guilty.
Despite his knowledge of the system’s errors during its deployment, the La Poste did not just hide thembut did everything to ensure that the errors were not revealed in court.
Documents revealed at recent Post Office Horizon public inquiry hearings have shed light on the Post Office’s strategy of using 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 how far the Post Office was prepared to go, to prevent Castleton from winning in court and proving that the system Horizon was faulty.
At a recent hearing, attorney Flora Page, representing former postmasters affected by the Horizon scandal, referred to a document that will appear later in the inquest.
“What we now know about the documents of this investigation, which have not yet been recovered, but which I can quote to you briefly…”
Quoting from the document, Page said there was a clear intention on the part of the Post with legal advice to defeat Castleton in court and seek heavy costs, “Not to make a net financial turnaround, but to defend the Horizon system and hopefully send a clear message to other postmasters that the Post Office will take a tough line and deter others from raising similar allegations.”
Page told the inquest: ‘So that was the point. It was never envisioned that the Post Office would actually recoup this cost order – it was a loss leader, if you will. But the goal was to send a clear message to deter others.
The document is expected to appear later, when the reasons and motivation for the lawsuits against Castleton, as well as the conduct of these lawsuits, will be examined.
Page said Castleton “lost everything he invested in his branch, he lost his life, 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 inquest, because that person made terrible decisions that caused so many consequences for my family. I don’t can’t tell you how painful the journey has been over the past 20 years.
At the time of his post challenge, it was determined that a flaw in the system, known as the Calendar Square bug, had not been disclosed to Castleton’s legal team.
In a recent investigative hearing, a December 2006 email from a Postal executive involved in dispute resolution to an executive at vendor Horizon Fujitsu was captioned “Calendar Square: URGENT.”
The email read: “Our legal team in court will do their best to persuade the court not to allow [Lee] Castleton to present this evidence because it is filed late and unrelated to its branch issues. If they are successful, there will be no need to continue these inquiries, but as Castleton is an in-person litigant, it is common for judges to be sympathetic and can allow him to rely on this evidence. If so, you will need to make every effort to investigate what, if anything, went wrong at those branches and why we can single them out from Mr. Castleton to [his branch].”
Castleton said: “Seeing these documents in the inquest makes me sick. All this pain and anguish we went through as a family, and now we know it was hidden by the Post Office. They kept doing it over the years to make it difficult for everyone, if only they had been open and honest from the start we could have gotten to the bottom of it and it would have been less painful for everyone.