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Law to exonerate wronged subpostmasters introduced.

today13/03/2024

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Law to exonerate wronged subpostmasters introduced.

A law aimed at quashing the wrongful convictions of subpostmasters caught up in the Horizon IT scandal is being introduced by the Government on Wednesday.

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.

The legislation will exonerate those convicted in England and Wales on the basis of the faulty Horizon accounting software in what has been branded the biggest miscarriage of justice in British legal history.

Downing Street said that under the 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 subpostmasters, 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.”

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 long-running saga was put in a fresh spotlight by ITV’s acclaimed drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

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.

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.

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 acknowledge there is a risk the legislation could quash 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.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said the “devil will be in the detail” of such a complex proposal and warned against treating the scheme as a precedent for Government intervention in the independent judiciary.

President of the society Nick Emmerson said: “We all know that we need to speed up the process for quashing the wrongful convictions of the victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal.

“We recognise that the Government has carefully considered the pressures facing our legal system and has set out some reasonable criteria. However, as always, the devil will be in the detail of such a complex proposal.

“An exceptional scheme such as this can only be justified by extraordinary circumstances. It cannot be treated as a precedent or justify further government intervention in the independence of our justice system.”

Labour welcomed “progress” being made but said the legislation alone would not deliver justice in full, saying compensation for victims must be secured “at pace”.

Shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said: “Sub-postmasters have been vindicated in their courageous search for justice after so many lost their livelihoods, liberty, and even lives because the Post Office wrongly felt workers were inherently dishonest, while technology was infallible.

“Labour is pleased that progress is being made and we will carefully study the legislation to make sure it delivers for sub-postmasters.

“We will also work to ensure that that the Government makes good on its promise no precedent will be set that would undermine the independence of our courts. This Bill must be a truly exceptional step, that should never need to be repeated.

“This legislation alone does not deliver justice in full and we must get compensation to victims at pace if we are ever to get justice for sub-postmasters. Labour will work with the Government to ensure justice is delivered in swift and proper manner.”

Scottish Government Justice Secretary Angela Constance said: “We, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, urged the UK Government to introduce UK-wide legislation as the best way to ensure there is a quick, fair and equal solution for all affected sub-postmasters, particularly as the Post Office is reserved to Westminster, so this announcement is extremely disappointing.

“It is not too late for the UK Government to change their position but if this continues to be refused, we will introduce Scottish legislation that delivers justice for all those affected.

“It is likely that this would need to be passed after a UK Bill is passed to ensure full compatibility with UK legislation and the UK compensation scheme, in which the Scottish Government has no locus, but we will do everything in our power to work as quickly as possible.”

Published: by Radio NewsHub

Written by: Radio News Hub


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