Ministers vow to speed up justice for Post Office victimson January 9, 2024 at 7:01 am

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Plans to fast-track appeals of those affected by IT scandal to be announced “very shortly”, minister says.

A stock image shows a 'Post Office' sign on the exterior wall of a branchImage source, Reuters

The government is looking at ways to fast-track the appeals of hundreds of sub-postmasters caught up in the Post Office IT scandal.

More than 700 people received criminal convictions after faulty software made it look like money was missing.

To date, just 93 convictions have been overturned and only 30 have finalised compensation with the government.

Business Minister Kevin Hollinrake said plans to speed up the remaining cases would be announced “very shortly”.

He said options including new legislation to quash the convictions were being considered.

The business minister also suggested that Fujitsu – the technology company behind the software that caused the scandal – and anyone else found to be responsible should be “held accountable including making any payments” towards victims’ compensation.

On Monday, Mr Hollinrake met Justice Secretary Alex Chalk to discuss what he called “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our history”.

“We have devised some options for resolving the outstanding criminal convictions with much more pace,” the minister said.

But he added, Mr Chalk would “need to speak to senior figures in the judiciary about these options before we put them forward”.

He said the pair had discussed “at length” the possibility of changing the law in order to deal with those who are still waiting to clear their names.

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses – an average of one a week – based on information from a computer system called Horizon.

Many maintained their innocence and said they had repeatedly raised issues with Horizon.

But some went to prison for false accounting and theft. Many were financially ruined.

The scandal was the subject of an ITV drama broadcast last week that has catapulted it back into public consciousness.

The Metropolitan Police has said it is investigating the Post Office over possible fraud offences arising from the prosecutions.

The government is also looking at changing the rules round private prosecutions, after the Post Office pursued its former employees through the courts.

Campaigners called for the Post Office to be prevented from taking part in appeals against the convictions of former sub-postmasters.

Sir Keir Starmer has called for the Post Office to be stripped of its prosecution powers and for previous convictions looked at again.

“I think that the prosecution should be taken out of the hands of the Post Office and given to the Crown Prosecution Service,” he said.

“And these convictions, the remaining convictions, need to be looked at en masse.”

The government also announced retired judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom would chair an independent panel overseeing compensation payments to those whose convictions have been overturned.

Mr Bates vs The Post Office cast

Image source, ITV

Two former justice secretaries have called for legislation to be brought in as soon as possible.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the justice secretary under Tony Blair, said the government could introduce new laws “tomorrow and there would be no resistance in parliament”.

“It’s an absolutely shocking scandal that’s been there for years and years, and now it’s at the top of the political agenda.

“Everyone agrees it will take years to get rid of those other convictions unless there is a change in procedure.”

In a letter to The Times, Sir Robert Buckland, Mr Chalk’s predecessor, said: “Too many sub-postmasters have already died without seeing justice being done, so there is no more time to be lost.”

Speaking in the House of Commons, Sir Robert said he would support a new law to “create a presumption of innocence” for those convicted due to the faulty software.

‘Keep the momentum ‘

Alan Bates, a former sub-postmaster who has led efforts for justice, told the BBC he believed a “resolution” was “closer”.

Mr Bates, played by Toby Jones in the ITV drama, said the years it had taken to get to this point had been “frustrating”, but added the ITV show had enabled a “broader audience” to understand what happened.

“The most important thing is for government to make sure that this financial redress goes through at speed to get it there as soon as possible, not wait, not spend money with lawyers time and time again,” he said.

“We still have to keep the pressure on and we have got to push people and we’ve got to get the whole thing moving and keep the momentum.

“The group has lost 60 or 70 people since we started all this. People need to get on with lives, they need to be able to draw a line under it – they will never forget it, but they have got to be able to get on and unfortunately they do need money to keep them going.

“This money is only what they are owed. This is money to put them back in a position what they would have been had Post Office not done what they did to them.”

Stripping titles

There has also been a campaign to strip former Post Office boss Paula Vennells of her CBE over the scandal.

Ms Vennells, who was Post Office chief executive between 2012 and 2019, has been urged to forfeit her honour.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said: “The prime minister shares the public’s feeling of outrage on this issue. He would strongly support the Forfeiture Committee if it chose to review the case.”

The Forfeiture Committee can recommend honours are stripped if a person has brought the system into disrepute.

Ms Vennells has said previously that she remained “truly sorry for the suffering caused to wrongly prosecuted sub-postmasters and their families”.

She also said she continued to fully support and focus on co-operating with the ongoing public inquiry into the scandal.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has also faced fresh scrutiny over his role as postal affairs minister during the coalition government.

His predecessor Sir Vince Cable, who was business secretary during that period, told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme Sir Ed was being made a “scapegoat”.

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