The Post Office is delaying by at least six weeks the planned launch of a scheme offering compensation to hundreds of current and former subpostmasters who faced false accusations of fraud related to its Horizon branch accounting system, blaming covid-19 fallout
The compensation scheme was set to come into effect on 23 March, but will now be delayed until at least 1 May.
A Post Office spokesman said: ‘The Historical Shortfall Scheme was due to open for applications. However, our immediate focus is to prioritise support for our postmasters through the current coronavirus health crisis.
Some postmasters are self-isolating as a precaution. Many other postmasters are busy implementing plans to keep their Post Office open with appropriate social distancing measures in place so that vital community services, including access to cash, can continue throughout the UK.
‘We will keep the situation with coronavirus under close review and currently plan to open the scheme on Friday 1 May 2020. We are planning widespread advertising, as well as direct communications to both current and former postmasters when the scheme.’
At the end of last year the Post Office agreed to pay £58m to settle a long running case brought by the group Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA), which represented some 550 sub postmasters.
The Post Office maintained they were responsible for discrepancies in their accounts, while the subpostmasters maintained the shortfalls were down to problems with a new computerised accounting system. JFSA members had faced legal claims to return monies and, in some cases, had been given jail sentences. Many lost their businesses and some were declared bankrupt.
Following the final High Court judgement on the issues, where the judge ruled the earlier version of the Horizon computer system was not ‘remotely robust’, resulting in a ‘significant and material risk’ of branch accounts suffering from ‘bugs, errors and defects’, the Post Office set up a scheme to independently assess applications from current and former postmasters who believe they have experienced shortfalls.
The settlement saw the Post Office’s appeal rejected, with the judge stating it was based on the premise that the Post Office ‘was not obliged to treat [postmasters] with good faith, and instead entitled to treat them in capricious or arbitrary ways which would not be unfamiliar to a mid-Victorian factory-owner.’