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Law to clear hundreds of wrongfully convicted subpostmasters expected in July

Law to overturn Post Office convictions based on computer evidence set to be introduced in July following unprecedented legislation

The government expects a law to overturn Post Office Horizon scandal-related criminal convictions in July, but said it “will not set a precedent”.

Fears were raised about the planned legislation amid questions about the relationship between Parliament and the judiciary.

In January, after the dramatisation of the Post Office scandal caused public anger, the government announced that emergency legislation would be pushed through Parliament in a matter of weeks to quickly overturn the convictions of hundreds of former subpostmasters and their staff.

Between 2000 and 2015, 736 former subpostmasters and branch staff were prosecuted by the Post Office and convicted of crimes such as theft and false accounting. They were prosecuted based on evidence from the Post Office’s Horizon computer system, which was later 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.

Because of the slow pace of overturning convictions, the government announced its plan for a blanket exoneration. This created a major dilemma for the government in that while it would ensure all innocent subpostmasters get justice, it risks people who have committed crimes being exonerated and receiving compensation.

In a written statement to Parliament, Kevin Hollinrake, under-secretary of state at the Department for Business and Trade, said: “The government recognises the constitutional sensitivity and unprecedented nature of this legislation. The government is clear that this legislation does not set a precedent for the future relationship between the executive, Parliament and the judiciary.”

Unprecedented intervention

Hollinrake said that since prime minister Rishi Sunak announced the planned legislation, the government has been working to determine the most effective approach “to this unprecedented intervention”.

“As noted in my statement on 10 January, the legislation is likely to exonerate a number of people who were, in fact, guilty of a crime,” he added. “The government accepts this is a price worth paying in order to ensure that many innocent people are exonerated.”

To mitigate this, the government said, to overturn their convictions, all subpostmasters will have to sign a statement declaring they have not committed a crime. If this is later found to be untrue, they will face investigation.

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, Mr Bates vs the Post Office: The real story.

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

Computer Weekly articles about the scandal since 2009 

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