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Hundreds of subpostmasters to have convictions quashed in blanket exoneration

The government has chosen to introduce legislation that will enable it to exonerate hundreds of subpostmasters as a group

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: All eyes are on the Post Office scandal – at last

Emergency legislation will be pushed through Parliament in a matter of weeks to quickly overturn the convictions of hundreds of former subpostmasters and their staff, prime minister Rishi Sunak has promised.

The blanket exoneration comes after a major dilemma for the government.

During Prime Minister’s Questions, in a House of Commons united on the matter, Sunak said the government “will introduce primary legislation to make sure subpostmasters convicted will be quickly exonerated”.

Kevin Hollinrake, under-secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade, provided details. He said the government faced a dilemma – a blanket exoneration would ensure all innocent subpostmasters get justice but would also risk people who have committed crimes being exonerated and receiving compensation.

Kevan Jones, MP, a long-time campaigner for subpostmasters, welcomed the announcement. He acknowledged the dilemma the government faced, saying: “This [would be] messy either way, but we have to do it.”

Hollinrake said all subpostmasters will have to sign a statement declaring they have not committed a crime. He said if this is later found to be untrue, they will face investigation. He said the legislation would take weeks, but then each subpostmaster would simply need to sign a single statement to be exonerated.

This comes two months after Hollinrake denied this was a possibility in a letter to a subpostmaster’s MP. In the letter to Jeremy Hunt, he said the government was unable to exonerate subpostmasters as a group. “The courts’ processes are independent of government, as are the Criminal Cases Review Commissions, and therefore I am unable to influence their approach in this matter,” he wrote.

An ITV drama and documentary about the scandal has since angered the UK public and forced the government to act.

Between 2000 and 2015, 736 subpostmasters were convicted of crimes including theft and false accounting after the Post Office prosecuted them using evidence from the Horizon retail and accounting system used in thousands of branches.

The Horizon system was proved to be error-prone during a High Court legal battle that began in 2018. Led by former subpostmaster Alan Bates, a group of 555 members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) sued the Post Office to prove that errors in the Horizon system were causing unexplained accounting discrepancies. Since then, nearly 100 former subpostmasters and branch staff have had convictions overturned. It is often referred to as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Sunak also promised a £75,000 payment for the 555 subpostmasters of the JFSA towards the compensation they are still waiting for. Four years after the end of the High Court battle, only 5% of the 555 have received full compensation. The cash offer does not have to be accepted, but the government believes one-third of the subpostmasters who won in the High Court would benefit from the offer because this group is made up of many members with smaller claims.

Former subpostmaster Jo Hamilton, who had her conviction overturned in the Court of Appeal case bearing her name in 2021, said: “You still haven’t paid to the group and the fact that you think throwing £75k at people will help just shows how completely out of touch you are. Wouldn’t even cover the interest on what has been stolen from them by the Post Office.”

David Davis, MP, asked Hollinrake whether Fujitsu would be made to contribute to the financial redress for scandal victims. Hollinrake said the government must wait until Wyn Williams has completed his statutory public inquiry. Davis also called for a speeding up of prosecutions of those responsible for the scandal, for their role in “perverting the course of justice”.

Hollinrake also called for more people affected by the scandal to come forward.

Computer Weekly exposed the scandal in 2009 with an investigation into problems being experienced by seven subpostmasters, including Alan Bates and Noel Thomas in North Wales, Lee Castleton in Bridlington and Jo Hamilton in Hampshire. All four featured in the recent ITV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

• Also watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary: The real story

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

Timeline: Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009

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