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'Mr Bates vs the Post Office' Recap: Episode 4

Daniel Hautzinger
Mr Bates stands looking serious in front of a fence
Alan and the subpostmasters finally have their day in court, but Alan will never stop his fight. Credit: ITV Studios and Masterpiece

Mr Bates vs the Post Office is available to stream. Recap the previous episode.
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Eight years after the first meeting of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance in Fenny Compton, Alan Bates has gathered 555 subpostmasters to join a court case against the Post Office that will be led by the contract lawyer James Hartley. Most of those 555 people were told by the Horizon help line that they were the “only one” experiencing issues with the computer system that led to them paying money they didn’t have, ruining their lives and health and taking away their jobs.

The court case won’t fix any of that, but it might win them compensation – although the funders of the lawsuit will be paid out of whatever they win, if they win. But Alan argues that more than compensation or even justice – the case won’t overturn wrongful criminal convictions like those of Jo or Noel – they will be fighting for the truth.

Some of them won’t live to see it. Jo’s mother learns she has pancreatic cancer and makes Jo promise that she will see the case through. She is dead within five days.

Jo still insists on attending every day of the trial, even though she won’t be called as a witness because of her criminal conviction. Alan will be the first witness, and it’s his name on the case: Mr. Bates and Others vs. the Post Office. The Post Office makes the case that the losses that subpostmasters recorded and were required to pay were the result of errors or wrongdoing, not issues with Horizon.

But Alan stands on his convictions, as does Pam Stubbs – she even gets fiery when the Post Office’s lawyer presses her. Mohammad Sabir also stands up for himself on the stand. The Post Office chose him as a witness because he has a business background and they want to make the case that he should have known what was happening, but he flusters their lawyer, both because English is not his first language and because of his indignation.

The subpostmasters’ lawyers have managed to acquire some documents useful to their case despite stonewalling and redactions by the Post Office, specifically an email from the CEO Paula Vennells asking if the Post Office had remote access to Horizon accounts, something the Post Office has continually denied despite the contention of Michael Rudkin and a whistleblower from Horizon who isn’t prepared to appear in court.

James meets with the whistleblower, Richard Roll, to get information and try to persuade him to testify. Richard says he and other Horizon employees would remotely fix issues on Horizon systems across the country without the subpostmasters knowing. But he doesn’t have documents or anything to prove it.

Still, when the Post Office executive Angela van den Bogerd testifies in court and is confronted by Paula’s email, she quietly admits that Fujitsu, the manufacturer of Horizon, had remote access – but not without the knowledge or consent of the subpostmaster, she contends. Shown a document authored by herself admitting shortcoming with the Horizon help line, which the subpostmasters called repeatedly, she has no good answer.

Meanwhile, Paula – who is not a witness in the trial – is made a Dame by the Queen, to the disgust of the subpostmasters.

Alan joins James as he again meets with the whistleblower Richard, and this time convinces him to testify. The forensic accountant Bob Rutherford, who led an initial investigation into the Post Office, goes to court to witness Richard’s testimony. Richard is nervous and qualifies his testimony as recollections from years ago, but he makes his case that there was remote access and the subpostmasters didn’t know about it. After court, Bob joins Jo and Alan for a drink. He tells them that he suspects the money subpostmasters like Jo paid to make up nonexistent losses sat in an account somewhere before eventually becoming part of the Post Office’s reported profits, although he can’t prove it. Are they just incompetent, or evil, Jo wonders aloud.

The judge in the trial certainly finds them duplicitous, as he makes clear in statement that criticizes Angela as less than forthcoming in testimony and Alan as honest – and stubborn. The Post Office’s lawyers then file a motion for the judge to recuse himself on the basis of bias, a move that the subpostmasters’ lawyers celebrate because it is desperate. It’s an opportunity to settle.

Alan is less happy, because it means the trial will be delayed and he and the subpostmasters are out of money to continue it. He doesn’t want to negotiate a settlement – the public needs to know about the ruined lives, the suicides. And he doesn’t trust the Post Office. A settlement is not winning but giving up.

Nevertheless, it is the only option, and the victory is still great – one of the lawyers says he’s never seen anything like it. After all the legal fees and funders’ cut, however, there is only about £12 million available for the subpostmasters, or some £20,000 each. Some people, like Lee Castleton, are upset by the meager sum, but Alan argues that the judgment means subpostmasters who were too afraid to come forward now can, and those with criminal convictions now have extra ammunition for appeals. Jo, who watched the whole trial, defends Alan and the lawyers – who often worked for free – and Lee later comes up to thank Alan, as do Pam and Mohammad Sabir.

You proved Horizon was faulty, Jo tells Alan. You won, after years of unflagging effort. He urges her to prove her innocence with the documents that have surfaced in the trial. Alan himself is not done; he will continue to fight for everyone to get their money back and for the government and Post Office to accept blame.

More investigation reveals that the Post Office lied to and was in contempt of Parliament during Bob’s independent investigation, as they secretly commissioned outside legal help and shredded documents. They also knew the convictions of subpostmasters shouldn’t have happened. It is unclear if Paula knew of any of this; she makes a statement apologizing but not admitting criminal misconduct.

All of this evidence helps Jo, Noel, and 40 other subpostmasters have their criminal convictions vacated as an “affront” to justice, although three of them don’t live to see the judgment, which takes years. Everyone is there to rejoice, except Alan, who watches on TV. Hugs and tears abound. Noel tells a reporter that executives responsible need to be fined, not sent to jail – he knows what jail is like. Jo looks into a camera and ecstatically tells Alan, “Look what you have done!”

The member of Parliament James Arbuthnot characterizes the whole saga as the widest miscarriage of justice in British legal history. But Alan maintains that it’s still not over. He’s keeping track of legal fees, with interest, for the government to pay the subpostmasters back.

The Post Office blamed 3,500 subpostmasters for financial losses caused by Horizon. 700 were found guilty of crimes, with 236 sent to prison. Four died by suicide. Ninety-three convictions have been overturned so far. No Post Office executive has faced a criminal charge.