Dilley, Blake, Jones.
Womble Bond Dickinson partner Stephen Dilley has defended his record conducting the Post Office’s case against sub-postmaster Lee Castleton in a session of the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry.
Dilley, who at the time of the case was a solicitor at Bond Pearce, told the hearing that he could have given a very short statement consisting of “I don’t remember” since it all occurred around 18 years ago, but chose not to because “I didn’t think that would be helpful; we’re here to learn”.
Julian Blake, a barrister at 11 King’s Bench Walk and counsel for the Inquiry, wanted to learn if Dilley wished to say anything to Castleton or his family, who were made bankrupt as a result of the Post Office’s case against him.
“No there isn’t”, Dilley replied. He said that he was “Satisfied that I acted - and my firm acted - politely, compassionately and appropriately at all times”.
Dilley explained that he never believed Castleton dishonestly took money from the Post Office, and emphasised that his client had tried to settle the counterclaim brought by the sub-postmaster many times without success.
He also denied that the case had been intended to make an example of Castleton to scare off other sub-postmasters who might have made claims over the shoddy IT.
“I think it was less about making an example of Mr Castleton, and more about sending a message that they were willing to defend the Fujitsu Horizon system”, said Dilley, which Blake suggested were not materially different positions.
The solicitor took the opportunity to publicly address Castleton’s allegation that before the original hearing, he told the sub-postmaster that the Post Office would “ruin” him.
“I refute using that language", said Dilley. "It just doesn’t sound like language I would use?”
“It makes me sound like a Vinnie Jones character from an East End gangster film. It’s just not at all who I am", he said, adding that if he had used those words, he would have written them down in his note of the call. “I was saying the costs to him were going to be significant to him if we win, and that’s entirely right”, said the partner.
“I don’t want to speculate what his mind was saying to himself as I said that…But I am clear - really clear - that the language that I used to Mr Castleton was not that the Post Office would ruin him”.
Although, said Dilley, “I entirely accept that we had advised the Post Office more than once that there was a serious risk that if we succeeded in their case against Mr Castleton that he would be unable to pay all of their claim”.
During the Castleton case, the Post Office chose not to disclose the fact that it was logging 12,000 to 15,000 calls a month from sub-postmasters flagging issues with the Horizon system, or the substance of those calls.
Asked if that huge volume constituted a reason to investigate further for the purposes of disclosure, Dilley told Blake, “I don’t think so”.
Not only would it have been too onerous an exercise, it also didn’t necessarily mean there were real problems with the system, explained Dilley. As an example, he joked that when he called the Womble Bond Dickinson IT team, the problem usually turned out to be his fault.
“I ring my IT support desk because I think I’ve got a problem with my computer - when you make the call, it’s mostly me”, he laughed.
The implication that he believed the same was true of thousands of sub-postmasters' calls appeared to leave Blake briefly speechless, but Dilley went on to explain that Horizon was very hard to use, citing the fact that its user manual alone filled one or two lever arch files.
“So 12 to 15,000 calls is too many to search, but not enough to show there’s a problem with Horizon?” asked Blake.
Dilley replied that it would not have generated enough relevant information, and would have “drowned Mr Castleton”.
Blake asked if that was a matter for Castleton, rather than Bond Pearce, but Dilley retorted that a regular complaint from claimants was that disclosure had “swamped“ them.
“I absolutely believe that Post Office met its duty of carrying out a reasonable search by the criteria of the Civil Procedure Rules”, said Dilley.
However, towards the end of the session, some cracks appeared in Dilley’s staunch defence of his client.
During Castleton’s case, the Post Office also chose not to disclose that many other sub-postmasters were in the process of bringing claims, but Dilley said that he was only ever made aware of two others by his Post Office contact.
“She did have a turn of phrase that wasn’t always, I came to learn, accurate, and the only two cases that came to my attention, when we dug on this, were those two”, he said. "If she was aware of more cases - 555 more cases - she never told me, she never told my firm".
“I asked the Post Office if they had done a thorough job…and I thought they had", he said.
A spokesperson for Womble Bond Dickinson said that as Dilley's testimony was continuing on Friday, it felt it would be inappropriate to comment.