Mr Bates vs The Post Office: Former Bridlington subpostmaster reveals the scandal's true trauma

​When he was standing in the dock at the High Court nearly 20 years ago, Bridlington subpostmaster Lee Castleton truly believed truth would prevail.
​Former Bridlington Post Office subpostmaster Lee Castleton, who now lives in Scarborough. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe​Former Bridlington Post Office subpostmaster Lee Castleton, who now lives in Scarborough. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
​Former Bridlington Post Office subpostmaster Lee Castleton, who now lives in Scarborough. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

​But as a gripping ITV drama showed, instead, after a two-year legal fight he was bankrupted, pursued for £321,000 costs by the Post Office, who it seems wanted to punish him for his temerity in standing up to their might.

Lee, 55, who was played by Will Mellor in Mr Bates versus the Post Office - younger, thinner maybe, but every bit as passionate - still believes that truth will triumph. It is just taking an unbelievably long time - two decades now - and the battle for compensation is creating yet more trauma.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The former aircraft electrical engineer turned trainee stockbroker bought a Post Office in Bridlington in July 2003 with wife Lisa.

But within three weeks he was "ripping his hair out" over problems stemming from the now infamous Horizon system, since shown to have been riddled with faults.

He called the helpline 91 times pleading for help, but to no avail. By March 2004 the unexplained losses had hit £25,000.

He was suspended after requesting an audit the same month and ordered to repay the money.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

After the Post Office's legal team failed to show up at Scarborough County Court for the initial case, judgement was given in his favour.

The Post Office appealed and the case ended up in the High Court in London where Lee had to represent himself: "I had to defend myself and it all went terribly wrong. I lost everything."

He, his wife and two daughters suffered, and still suffer, the consequences. One of them, now a teacher, developed an eating disorder.

Lee, who now works nightshifts in a factory in Scarborough, said: "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy, my family, particularly my children suffered terribly. My daughter was spat at, I've been physically assaulted for stealing money from old people, apparently.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"We were ostracised. It's a small town, I felt we were targeted, we had a terrible time."

Mr Bates versus the Post Office showed the first meeting at Fenny Compton in Warwickshire attended by a group of subpostmasters, who'd all been prosecuted including Lee, marking the start of their campaign for justice, having always been told previously their cases "were the only ones".

In fact between 2000 and 2014, an average of one subpostmaster or subpostmistress a week was prosecuted, for theft, false accounting and other offences.

From a total of 736, some were jailed, many were bankrupted, all suffering appalling stress and public shame.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

So far 92 have had their convictions quashed. Shocking scenes shown in the ITV drama included a tormented subpostmistress needing electric convulsive therapy for severe depression after stabbing herself.

One former postmaster, Martin Griffiths, killed himself after he was falsely suspected of stealing £60,000.

Lee said: "I am just so grateful (for the ITV series). For so many years people never listened, we were just another group of people with an axe to grind. Finally people are listening to the sheer trauma that happened in people's lives.

"The Post Office say they are apologising and making good and giving full and fair compensation, but it's just more of the same. People are being put through more and more terrible trauma trying to justify their actions against what they are going to get in the future.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"Someone may have pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and it's now being turned against them to reduce compensation. Instead of being fair and straightforward they are still punishing people.

"There are people who have not had an interim payment and they are still trying to survive. Would you be happy if someone who stole your car decided how much compensation you got? The very perpetrator of the thing deciding who is worthy of compensation and how they pay that?

"This is state sponsored: the Post Office is still spending millions in legal costs to try and drive everybody down."

Along with eight other original claimants the Castletons received a settlement, but they had to pay for the annulment of the bankruptcy, reducing the amount to just £30,000. They are still awaiting the "full and fair" compensation.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It "beggars belief" he says that no one has been held accountable in government or the Post Office. "No one has been moved aside, no one has lost their job, people have retired with their gold-plated pensions." More than 600 subpostmasters and mistresses still haven't come forward.

But for Lee it's no surprise that victims are not prepared to go back to the "same person who possibly perjured themselves taking the case to court in the first place".

The huge question is whether those involved in the cases will themselves now face court. So far so good, says Lee, with barrister Jason Beer and his team doing a "phenomenal" job at the ongoing public inquiry "opening cans of worms that we always believed were there" with emails and other documents they have unearthed providing hard evidence against claims of not knowing, not remembering.

He said: "It's a tangled web; I think there will be a lot of finger pointing and ducking and diving. But bring it on. I am really looking forward to seeing where we are in a year's time - it has been a long time coming."