A former sub-postmaster has spoken to The Lawyer about his treatment at the hands of various lawyers involved in the Post Office Horizon IT scandal.

Many sub-postmasters were prosecuted or left financially destitute after the faulty Horizon IT system, created by Japanese company Fujitsu, produced incorrect shortfalls on their accounts, which the Post Office would then force the sub-postmasters to pay.

Lee Castleton says he rang a helpline no less than 91 times when his accounts weren’t balancing after the Horizon IT system displayed shortfalls. The Post Office sought to sue Castleton in 2006 for the supposedly missing £25,000, but the company didn’t turn up to Scarborough County Court on the day of the hearing. This led the judge to dismiss the case and award Castleton damages on his counter-claim.

The Post Office resurfaced again to take Castleton to the High Court, where it was represented at the time by Womble Bond Dickinson partner Stephen Dilley, then at legacy Bond Pearce. 

When asked about his experiences with Womble Bond, Castleton told The Lawyer: “He [Dilley] seemed excited by the pain he was causing… he thought it was highly amusing.” He added: “he would often giggle.”

Castleton had legal representatives in the County Court but had exhausted finances by the time of the High Court hearing. He attended court with his father, defending himself. Castleton said: “I felt like Stephen was mocking me with word games before court. I’m a very direct person myself, so I didn’t appreciate that.”

Castleton ultimately lost his case, and the Post Office then pursued him for legal costs of £321,000, bankrupting him. 

Dilley appeared in the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry last September. When asked by inquiry counsel whether he had anything to say to Castleton and his family, Dilley replied: “No, I don’t think so.”

In his witness statement, Dilley referred to the 2006 case and said he had “tried to explain matters clearly to Mr Castleton given he was a litigant in person”. He added: “I was empathetic towards Mr Castleton (in that part of our conversations where I explained it was not my view nor Post Office’s case he had been dishonest, which is what I meant when I said that I did not think he had taken the money).”

From 2016 to 2019, Womble Bond partner Andrew Parsons defended the Post Office in the group litigation brought by 555 sub-postmasters. Just two weeks into the trial, the firm instructed an additional counsel team led by Lord Grabiner KC to recuse the managing judge, Mr Justice Fraser, for apparent bias. 

Castleton, one of the 555, said: “The lawyers [from Womble Bond] would seem very jovial before Fraser J came in, almost ‘gamelike’. We [the 555] commonly felt like we were being mocked by the other side’s legal teams there.”

According to a 2019 Court of Appeal judgment regarding the recusal, Mr Justice Coulson said: “The judge learned of the recusal application by accident just before the afternoon session of the last day of the factual evidence on the Horizon Issues trial… This was at best discourteous; at worst, it betrayed a singular lack of openness on the part of PO and their advisors.”

Earlier this month, The Lawyer asked Womble Bond whether it continues to have confidence in the partners who conducted the litigation for the Post Office and whether it wanted to apologise for its role in the scandal. While the firm said it has “sympathy for all those affected,” it said it would be “inappropriate” for it to comment publicly “on matters which are expected to be addressed shortly in upcoming phases” of the inquiry.

In the spring and summer of this year, Phase 5 of the inquiry is expected to address the conduct of the group litigation.

All parties have been approached for comment. 

If you’d like to learn more about this ongoing story, you can listen to The Lawyer’s podcast here, where we discuss the lessons the legal profession can glean from the Post Office scandal. The episode has special guest appearances from the University of Exeter’s professor of law and professional ethics, Richard Moorhead, and Harbour Litigation Funding’s founder, Susan Dunn.