- By Sean Seddon & George Wright
- BBC News
The names of hundreds of people wrongly accused in the Post Office scandal could be cleared this year after emergency laws were announced to “speed up the release and compensation of victims”.
Postal Affairs Minister Kevin Hollinrake said hundreds had fallen victim to a “brutal and arbitrary exercise of power”.
Over 16 years there were more than 900 convictions related to the scandal.
But only 93 of these convictions have been quashed.
Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office sued hundreds of deputy postmasters and mistresses over a faulty Horizon IT system.
However, he added that “the devil is in the detail, we haven't seen it yet”.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told a public forum that those previously convicted in England and Wales would be cleared of wrongdoing and offered compensation under the new law.
The Scottish Government announced similar plans for those convicted in Scotland, which has a separate legal system.
Downing Street has said it aims to complete the process of overturning victims' convictions by the end of 2024.
A spokesman for the prime minister said the government intended to “introduce the legislation within weeks” and “hope it will be well supported”.
Speaking in the Commons after the prime minister, Mr Hollinrake said evidence emerging from a public inquiry into corruption suggested the Post Office had acted “incompetently and maliciously”.
He described the decision to abolish the sentences through an Act of Parliament as “unprecedented” and said it was not taken lightly, given its potential changes to the legal system.
Mr Hollinrake said the move, which would apply to England and Wales, “raises important constitutional issues” around the independence of the courts, which normally have the power to overturn a conviction.
The minister also accepted the risk that the new law would see those genuinely guilty of a crime pardoned – although the government estimates this would be a very small proportion of the total number of victims.
Asked on the BBC's PM program why he had chosen a TV drama to take action on a problem that had been known for more than a decade, Mr Hollinrake said the show, which aired this year, had moved the public and those in government.
“Of course we the people. We watch TV and see this and we and other people in government realize this is a situation we need to address,” he said.
Although the full details of the legislation have not been released, Downing Street said it would blanket convictions tied to the faulty Horizon IT system.
But the Department for Business said the BBC's convictions would not be lifted until the former deputy postmasters and postmistresses signed declarations saying they had not committed any offences.
Mr Hollinrake said by signing the document, they would be eligible for £600,000 in compensation already available to people whose names have been cleared through the courts.
The notice was designed to prevent “criminals getting away with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money”, he said, adding: “Anyone falsely signing this will be prosecuted for fraud.”
The government has also confirmed:
- A group court case led by Alan Bates introduces a one-off payment of £75,000 to 555 ex-postmasters who helped expose the injustice.
- Review whether people whose convictions are upheld after appeal can also be overturned by the new law
- Working with the administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure that sub-postal authorities in those countries are also allowed.
More on Post Office Scam
Mr Hollinrake said it could be “a few weeks” before the finer details of the legislation are published, and a lawyer representing some former deputy postmasters and postmistresses said he was waiting for the full text before passing a ruling.
Lawyer James Hartley, who represented 555 people in the first legal action against the Post Office, described the compensation announcement as “a sensible step forward”.
He said it would give victims the option to decide “whether or not to accept that payment as fair compensation.”
The government is well aware that by going without choosing the decisions of independent judges, it risks setting up a dangerous constitutional convention that undermines the independence of the courts.
Lord Ken Macdonald, director of the Crown Prosecution Service from 2003 to 2008, said the move was “amount to taking away from the courts and judges the right of parliament to say who is guilty and who is not”.
He continued: “I think the government is going for a big 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 played mostly in the wings pushed the ITV drama series to center stage.
Lee Castleton, a former deputy postmaster who became bankrupt after a two-year legal battle, is portrayed in the play.
Mr Castleton said it had cost him £321,000 to go through legal proceedings which claimed his family had been “marginalized” by the post office and their village in Yorkshire.
“People abused us on the street as thieves and my children were bullied,” she said.
He told the BBC that the compensation announced by the government was “very much appreciated” but that he “wanted to end this”.
“We'll have to wait to see the small print,” he said, adding that he's been “promised a hell of a lot” so far because nothing has arrived.
Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office filed lawsuits against people running branches of the business based on losses flagged by Horizon, an IT accounting program designed by Japanese technology giant Fujitsu.
Flaws in the software led to some deputy postmasters misrepresenting losses, being accused of crimes such as theft or false accounting – and consequently losing their livelihoods and good names.
To date, only 93 people prosecuted by the postal service have had their convictions overturned in court. Some deputy postmasters caught up in the scandal have died or taken their own lives in the intervening years.
About 700 cases were led by the Post Office, while others were handled by other bodies, including the Crown Prosecution Service.
A public inquiry into the matter, which began in 2021, is set to resume on Thursday. The Post Office said it aimed to get “the truth about what went wrong”.
The government has promised to hold Fujitsu to account if they are found guilty by a public inquiry. According to procurement analysts Tussell, the company has been awarded more than £6.5bn in public contracts since 2013.
A Fujitsu spokeswoman said the company recognized the “devastating impact on the lives of postmasters and their families” and “apologized for its role in their suffering”.