Hundreds of Post Office scandal victims to have convictions overturnedon January 10, 2024 at 7:39 pm

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New laws are to be introduced to clear the names of ex-postmasters caught up in Horizon IT scandal.

A post office worker carrying boxes from a red post office van into a post office branch in London on 8 JanuaryImage source, Getty Images

Hundreds wrongly convicted in the Post Office scandal could have their names cleared this year, after emergency laws were announced to “swiftly exonerate and compensate victims”.

Postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake said that hundreds fell victim to a “brutal and arbitrary exercise of power”.

There were more than 900 convictions linked to the scandal over 16 years.

But only 93 of these convictions have since been overturned.

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of sub-postmasters and mistresses based on the faulty Horizon IT system.

Former sub-postmaster Alan Bates – who inspired the recent ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office – told the BBC it was “another positive step forward”.

However, he said “the devil is in the detail, and we’ve yet to see that”.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons that those previously convicted in England and Wales would be cleared of wrongdoing and compensated under a new law.

The Scottish government also announced similar plans for those convicted in Scotland, which has a separate legal system.

Downing Street said its aim was to complete the process of overturning the convictions of those affected by the end of 2024.

The prime minister’s spokesman said the government intends to “introduce the legislation within weeks” and is “confident it will be well-supported”.

Speaking in the Commons after the prime minister, Mr Hollinrake said evidence that emerged from the ongoing public inquiry into the scandal suggested the Post Office acted with “incompetence and malevolence”.

He described the decision to overturn the convictions through an Act of Parliament as “unprecedented” and said it had not been taken lightly, given its potential ramifications on the legal system.

Mr Hollinrake said the move applying to England and Wales “raises important constitutional issues” around the independence of the courts, which are normally the authority that would overturn a conviction.

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The minister also accepted the new law would risk seeing people who were genuinely guilty of a crime pardoned – though the government estimates that to be a very small proportion of the total number affected.

Asked by the BBC’s PM programme why it had taken a TV drama to inspire action on a problem known about for over a decade, Mr Hollinrake said the show released this year had moved the public as well as people in government.

“We are people ourselves of course. We watch TV ourselves and see this stuff, and we and other people within government realise this is a situation we’ve got to resolve,” he said.

While the full detail of the law has not been published, Downing Street said it would amount to a blanket overturning of convictions tied to the faulty Horizon IT system.

But the Department for Business told the BBC convictions would not be lifted until former sub-postmasters and postmistresses signed a declaration that they had not committed any crime.

Mr Hollinrake said by signing the document, they will become eligible for the compensation payment of £600,000 already available to people who have cleared their names via the courts.

The declaration is designed to prevent “guilty people walking away with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money”, he said, adding: “Anyone falsely signing this will be subject for prosecution for fraud.”

The government has also confirmed it will:

  • introduce a one-off £75,000 payment for the 555 ex-postmasters whose group court case, led by Alan Bates, helped to expose the injustice
  • review whether people whose convictions were upheld after an appeal can also be overturned by the new law
  • work with administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure sub-postmasters in those nations can also be cleared
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Mr Hollinrake said it may take “some weeks” to publish the fine details of the law, and a lawyer who has represented some former sub-postmasters and postmistresses said he was awaiting the full text before passing judgement.

The lawyer who represented the 555 in their first legal action against the Post Office, James Hartley, described the compensation announcement as “a sensible step forward”.

He said it would give those affected the option to decide “whether or not to accept that payment as fair compensation”.

The government is keenly aware that by moving to unpick decisions made by independent judges, it risks setting a constitutional convention which risks upsetting the independence of the courts.

Lord Ken MacDonald, who was director of Crown Prosecution Service from 2003 to 2008, said the move amounted to “parliament seizing from the courts and from the judges, the right to say who is guilty and who is not guilty”.

He continued: “I think the government is going for a rather grand gesture here and I hope it doesn’t come back to bite us.”

Wednesday’s announcement comes after a fortnight in which a scandal that had played out largely in the wings was thrust centre stage by the ITV drama series.

Lee Castleton, a former sub-postmaster who was left bankrupt after a two-year legal battle with the Post Office, was portrayed in the drama.

Mr Castleton said it cost him £321,000 to go through the legal process with the Post Office and his family was “ostracised” in their village in Yorkshire.

“People abused us in the street for being thieves and my children were bullied,” he said.

He told the BBC the compensation payment announced by the government was “much appreciated” but that he “would just like to get to the end of this”.

Noel Thomas, 77, from Anglesey in Wales, said he was not convinced by Mr Sunak’s plan. Mr Thomas was jailed for false accounting in 2006 after his books fell short by £48,000.

He said he would have to “wait to see the small print”, and added he had been “promised a hell of a lot” so far only for nothing to come of it.

Mr Bates vs the Post Office

Image source, ITV

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office pursued prosecutions against people running branches of the business based on losses which were flagged by Horizon, an IT accounting programme designed by Japanese tech firm Fujitsu.

Faults with the software meant it wrongly showed some sub-postmasters racking up losses, leading them to be accused of crimes like theft or false accounting – and losing their livelihoods and good names as a result.

To date, only 93 people prosecuted by the Post Office over the period have had their convictions overturned in court. Some sub-postmasters caught up in the scandal have died or taken their own lives in the intervening years.

Around 700 of the prosecutions were led by the Post Office, with others carried out by other bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service.

A public inquiry into the affair which was launched in 2021 is set to resume on Thursday. The Post Office said it aims to get to “the truth of what went wrong”.

The government has committed to holding Fujitsu to account if they are found to be culpable by the public inquiry. The firm has been awarded more than £6.5bn in public contracts since 2013, according to procurement analysts Tussell.

A spokesperson for Fujitsu said the company recognises the “devastating impact on postmasters’ lives and that of their families” and has “apologised for its role in their suffering”.

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