- By Darbail Jordan
- Business Correspondent
The government is considering moves to clear the names of hundreds of deputy postmasters convicted in the Post Office Horizon scandal.
More than 700 branch managers were convicted of misaccounting, theft and fraud based on faulty software.
Fewer than 100 have had their convictions overturned.
The Prime Minister said the government was reviewing options, including removing the post office's role in the appeals process.
The Postal Department had the power to decide whether to bring original cases and its appointed lawyers presented the evidence in court. But as appeals continue to be heard, an option is now for the Crown Prosecution Service and its own lawyers to take action.
Many victims of the scandal – which began in 1999 – are still fighting to have their convictions overturned or receive full compensation after being forced to pay thousands of pounds of their own money for shortcomings caused by Horizon accounting software.
Former postmaster Lee Castleton, who said his life had been ruined by the Post Office, told the BBC: “I'm really angry.”
Rishi Sunak told the BBC's Laura Kuensberg on Sunday that the scandal was a “terrible miscarriage of justice”.
The post office — wholly owned by the government — acted as an advocate when cases were filed against its deputy postmasters and retained a role when those persons appealed.
It has sometimes resisted attempts by Deputy Postmasters to clear their names.
Asked by Laura Kuensberg whether Justice Secretary Alex Sack could release all those convicted or eliminate the Post Office's role, Mr Sunak said: “Obviously, there's a legal issue with all of those things, but he's looking at it. Exactly in the areas you've described.
“It's only right that we find every way we can to make this right for the people who were wronged at that time.”
Last month, the compensation watchdog called for all post office workers wrongly accused of theft and false accounts to overturn their convictions.
The Crown Prosecution Service may step into the Post Office's role in the appeals process.
But Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Judicial Select Committee, suggested such a move would require more evidence and could have an impact on other cases.
“Director of Public Prosecutions [Stephen Parkinson] They have to make that decision and they have to do it independently,” he said. “I'm sure they will look at it, they have to look at each case independently on its merits. I think you need more resources to do this.
“And then the final point, of course, is that the Court of Appeal has to set aside time to hear these cases, so there has to be agreement from the Ministry of Justice to have judges available, and other cases will proceed further down the line.”
The Ministry of Justice said last month that it wanted the criminal appeals system to be as efficient and effective as possible, had asked the Law Commission to review whether reforms were needed and was awaiting the conclusion of that review.
Mr Castleton said people were “shocked” by both the appeals process and the struggle to get compensation. describing it as a “war”.
“We are normal people”, he told the BBC, adding that it should be taken “out of the hands of those who are really responsible for it”.
“I like that it's really taken out of the hands of the people responsible in a way,” he said. “It's not just a computer problem, it's a people problem.
“People took people to court. People made decisions on bad data that they probably knew were wrong.”
A Post Office spokesperson said: “We fully share the objectives of the public inquiry to get to the truth of past wrongdoing and to establish accountability.” The inquiry must reach its own conclusions after considering all the evidence. The issues it examines.”
The Metropolitan Police is now investigating the post office for possible fraud offenses arising from the filings.
It said the potential offenses could relate to “money received from deputy postmasters as a result of lawsuits or civil proceedings”.
The Met is already investigating potential offenses of perjury and perverting the course of justice in connection with investigations and prosecutions conducted by the Post Office.
Two people were interviewed under caution, but no arrests have been made since the investigation began in January 2020.
The Met announced its new inquiry after 50 new victims of the scandal came forward following an ITV drama on the issue which aired this week.
Between 1999 and 2015, more than 700 deputy postmasters were prosecuted and convicted based on what appeared to be missing money based on information from the Horizon accounting system.
Some deputy postmasters went to prison wrongly, many were financially ruined and forced to declare bankruptcy, while others describe being ostracized by their communities following convictions for misappropriation and theft. Some have died.
To date, 93 convictions have been overturned, of which only 27 have agreed to “full and final settlements”.
In about 54 cases, convictions were upheld, people were denied permission to appeal, or people opted out of the process, the Post Office said.
A public inquiry into the scandal is underway.
After the four-part mini-series Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The Real Story aired on ITV this week, there is widespread sympathy – and renewed anger – for the victims.
It centers on the story of sub-postmaster Alan Bates, played by actor Toby Jones, who leads and wins a legal battle, paving the way for dozens of convictions to be overturned.
Lord Arbuthnot, who was Joe Hamilton's MP when he was wrongly convicted of false accounting – a conviction which was overturned in 2021 – said “those responsible deserve revenge”.
The ITV series focuses on former Post Office chief executive Paula Vennells. But Lord Arbuthnot said: “There are so many people who have behaved so badly that I think it would be wrong to focus on one person.
“In the meantime, a lot of people have gotten away with things they shouldn't have gotten away with, and I hope they won't be as a result of Sir Win Williams' public inquiry.”