A former Post Office manager claimed she has no memory of preparing a witness statement as part of a legal battle against a subpostmaster who said she had suffered unexplained losses caused by computer errors.
Elaine Cottam, who was a retail line manager at the Post Office, told the public inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal that, despite having signed it, she has no recollection of writing the witness statement, which was to be used by the Post Office in a legal dispute with one of the 100-plus branches she oversaw in her role.
The legal dispute involved a Post Office branch in Cleveleys, Lancashire. This dispute, in which subpostmaster Julie Wolstenholme challenged the reliability of the Post Office Horizon computer system, ended in an out-of-court settlement, with Wolstenholme signing a confidentiality agreement.
In 2001, the Post Office attempted to sue Wolstenholme for the return of equipment used in the Cleveleys branch after her contract was terminated, but in a counterclaim, she said her employment was terminated unlawfully and raised questions about the reliability of the Horizon computer system used in branches.
The case never reached court because an expert report, jointly commissioned by both parties in the run-up to the High Court hearing, raised significant questions about the Horizon system. The Post Office was forced to pay the subpostmaster to end the dispute, with a confidentiality agreement signed to prevent the settlement from becoming public, which would have shed light on Horizon problems – problems the Post Office denied existed.
During Cottam’s evidence to the public inquiry, it also emerged that her witness statement produced during the initial legal case against Wolstenholme contained pages of call logs of support requests made by the subpostmaster at the Cleveleys branch. But although the witness statement said the attachment contained call logs from 10 January to 30 November 2000, the call logs attached were only from 9 February to 21 June 2000. This meant logs of calls to the helpdesk, some of which were made by Cottam on Wolstenholme’s behalf – evidence that the subpostmaster was experiencing Horizon problems – were missing. Cottam said she didn’t remember any of the witness statement and said she would not understand the call logs.
Inquiry barrister Jason Beer KC asked Cottam if she thought somebody wrote the witness statement for her and she had signed it. Cottam replied: “If it’s about contracts and things like that, they would have drafted it for me, definitely.”
During the hearing, Cottam denied any knowledge of the case at all and told the inquiry: “I didn’t know there was a civil court [case]. The first I knew that there’d been a court case was when I got this bundle of documents.”
It also emerged that, despite being responsible for supporting over 100 Post Office branches, Cottam had no experience of the Horizon system. She also said she didn’t understand why she was giving evidence at the inquiry.
The public inquiry is investigating how hundreds of former subpostmasters were prosecuted or made bankrupt after being blamed for unexplained accounting shortfalls based on evidence from the Horizon computer system used in branches. The system has since been proved to be error-prone and 93 convictions have been overturned so far.
Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, with the stories of seven subpostmasters (see timeline of all Computer Weekly articles about the scandal below).