Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters to have convictions quashed under new Horizon scandal law

13 March 2024, 00:01 | Updated: 13 March 2024, 00:38

Hundreds of innocent postmasters will have their convictions quashed
Hundreds of innocent postmasters will have their convictions quashed. Picture: Getty/Alamy
Kieran Kelly

By Kieran Kelly

Hundreds of innocent sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted during the Horizon IT scandal will have their convictions automatically quashed under a new law being introduced today.

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The proposed Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill "marks an important step forward in finally clearing" the names of hundreds of wronged branch managers who have had their lives "callously torn apart", Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

It means those who were convicted in England and Wales on the basis of faulty Horizon software will be exonerated after what was described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

The scandal was thrust into the limelight earlier this year ITV's acclaimed drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

It told how hundreds of sub-postmasters were wrongly accused of stealing from the Post Office.

Post Office sub-postmasters will also be offered £600,000
Post Office sub-postmasters will also be offered £600,000. Picture: Getty
Sunak hailed it as an "important first step" in correcting a miscarriage of justice
Sunak hailed it as an "important first step" in correcting a miscarriage of justice. Picture: Getty

Under the new law, convictions will be automatically quashed if they meet the following criteria:

  • Were prosecuted by the Post Office or Crown Prosecution Service
  • Were for offences carried out in connection with Post Office business between 1996 and 2018
  • Were for relevant offences such as theft, fraud and false accounting
  • Were against sub-postmasters, their employees, officers, family members or direct employees of the Post Office working in a Post Office that used the Horizon system software.

Those with overturned convictions will receive an interim payment with the option of immediately taking a fixed and final offer of £600,000, according to No 10.

Mr Sunak said: "I want to pay tribute to all the postmasters who have shown such courage and perseverance in their fierce campaign for justice, and to those who tragically won't see the justice they deserve.

"While I know that nothing can make up for what they've been through, today's legislation marks an important step forward in finally clearing their names.

"We owe it to the victims of this scandal who have had their lives and livelihoods callously torn apart, to deliver the justice they've fought so long and hard for, and to ensure nothing like this ever happens again."

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More than 700 subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 as Fujitsu's faulty Horizon IT system made it appear as though money was missing at their branches.

The Government will also bring forward "enhanced" financial redress for postmasters who, while not convicted or part of legal action against the Post Office, made good the apparent losses caused by the Horizon system from their own pockets.

Read More: 'I am the subject of a smear campaign': Sacked Post Office boss hits out at Kemi Badenoch following public row over exit

Read More: Sell Post Office to Amazon for a pound, Horizon scandal hero Alan Bates tells MPs

They will be entitled to a fixed sum award of £75,000 through the Horizon Shortfall Scheme, Downing Street said.

Those who have already settled for less money will have their compensation topped up to this level, while people can instead choose to have their claims assessed as part of the usual scheme process, in which there is no limit to compensation.

The new Horizon Convictions Redress Scheme, to be run by the Department for Business and Trade, is to open for applications to those who have had their convictions quashed "as soon as possible" once the legislation has passed.

The Government hopes the Bill will receive royal assent and become law ahead of MPs' summer holiday.

Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said: "Postmasters have been fighting for justice for years, and I hope the introduction of today's legislation is the light at the end of the tunnel they have been waiting for."

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch said ministers "won't rest until every victim receives the compensation they are entitled to".

"It is absolutely right that we sweep away the convictions wrongly given to postmasters on the basis of bad evidence, and it is a disgrace that they were ever pursued by the Post Office," she said.

Ministers have decided the scale of the scandal is so great that the usual process of individuals going through the courts would take too long.

Postmaster: People are still waiting for justice

Justice Secretary Alex Chalk said: "These are exceptional circumstances which require an exceptional response to ensure those who were wrongly convicted can not only clear their names but be fairly and swiftly compensated."

Ministers have acknowledged that there could be a risk that the legislation quashes convictions of some people who were genuinely guilty of a crime.

To counter this, subpostmasters will have to sign a legal statement that they did not commit the offence, leaving them liable to prosecution if they were subsequently found to have lied.