- Written by Sean Seddon and George Wright
- BBC News
The names of hundreds wrongly convicted in the Post Office scandal could be cleared this year, after emergency laws were declared to “quickly exonerate and compensate victims”.
Postal Affairs Minister Kevin Hollinracke said hundreds had fallen 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 those convictions have since been overturned.
Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office sued hundreds of subpostmasters and mistresses based on a flawed Horizon IT system.
But he said, “The devil is in the details, and we haven't seen that yet.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons that those previously convicted in England and Wales will be cleared of wrongdoing and compensated under a new law.
The Scottish Government has also announced similar plans for convicts in Scotland, which has a separate legal system.
Downing Street said its aim is 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 “bring forward the legislation within weeks” and is “confident it will be well supported”.
Speaking in the House of Commons after the Prime Minister, Mr Hollinrake said evidence emerging from the ongoing public inquiry into the scandal suggested the Post Office had acted with “incompetence and malice”.
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 for the legal system.
Hollinryck said the move, which applies to England and Wales, “raises important constitutional issues” about the independence of the courts, which would normally be the power to overturn a conviction.
The Minister also agreed that the new law would risk pardoning people truly guilty of a crime – although the government estimates this is a very small proportion of the total number of those affected.
Asked by the BBC's Prime Minister's Program why he turned to a TV drama to inspire action on a problem that has been known for more than a decade, Mr Hollinrake said the show released this year had moved the public as well as people in government.
He said: “We are human beings, of course. We watch TV ourselves and see these things, and we and other people within the government realize that this is a situation that we must solve.”
While full details of the law have not been published, Downing Street said it would amount to a sweeping expungement of convictions linked to the faulty Horizon IT system.
But the Department for Business told the BBC that convictions will only be lifted after former postmasters and postmasters sign a statement that they have committed no crime.
Mr Hollinrake said that by signing the document, they would be eligible for the £600,000 compensation already available to people who have cleared their names through the courts.
He added that the declaration aims to prevent “the guilty from evading hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money,” adding that “anyone who signs this incorrectly will be subject to prosecution for fraud.”
The government also confirmed that it will do the following:
- Providing a one-off payment of £75,000 to 555 former postmasters whose class action, led by Alan Bates, helped expose injustice.
- Review whether people whose convictions are upheld after appeal can also be overturned under the new law
- Working with departments in Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure that sub-postmasters in those countries can be cleared
More about the Post Office scandal
Mr. Hollinrake said it could take “several weeks” for the finer details of the law to be published, and a lawyer representing some postmasters and former postmasters said he was waiting for the full text before issuing a ruling.
The lawyer who represented the 555 in their first legal action against the Post Office, James Hartley, called the compensation announcement a “reasonable step forward.”
He said it would give those affected the option to decide “whether they will accept this amount as fair compensation or not.”
The government is fully aware that by moving to overturn decisions made by independent judges, it risks creating a constitutional convention that risks compromising the independence of the courts.
Lord Ken MacDonald, who was director of Crown Prosecutions from 2003 to 2008, said the move amounted to Parliament “taking away from the courts and judges the right to decide who is guilty and who is not guilty.”
He continued: “I think the government will make a big gesture here and I hope it will not come back to bite us.”
Wednesday's announcement comes after two weeks in which the scandal, which largely unfolded in the wings, took center stage through the ITV drama series.
Lee Castleton, a former postmaster who went bankrupt after a two-year legal battle with the Post Office, is portrayed in the drama.
Castleton said that going through legal proceedings with the Post Office had cost him £321,000, and that his family were “outcasts” in their village in Yorkshire.
“People abused us on the street because we were thieves, and my children were bullied,” he said.
He told the BBC that the compensation announced by the government was “very much appreciated” but that he “just wants to get to the bottom of this”.
Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office pursued prosecutions against people running branches of the company based on losses reported by Horizon, an IT accounting software designed by Japanese technology company Fujitsu.
Bugs in the software meant that it incorrectly showed some subpostmasters making losses, leading to them being charged with crimes such as theft or false accounting – and losing their livelihoods and good names as a result.
So far, only 93 people prosecuted by the Post Office during this period have had their convictions overturned in court. Some subpostmasters caught up in the scandal have died or committed suicide in the intervening years.
The Post Office oversaw about 700 of the prosecutions, while other bodies, including the Public Prosecution Service, carried out.
The public investigation into the case, which began in 2021, is scheduled to resume on Thursday. The Post Office said it aimed to get to “the truth about what went wrong”.
The government has committed to holding Fujitsu accountable if proven guilty through the public investigation. The company has secured more than £6.5bn of public contracts since 2013, according to procurement analysts Tassel.
A Fujitsu spokesman said the company recognizes the “devastating impact on postmasters' lives and the lives of their families” and “apologizes for its role in their suffering.”
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