Britain will introduce legislation to quash convictions of those affected by a Post Office scandal


LONDON — The British government will introduce legislation Wednesday to quash the wrongful convictions of hundreds of Post Office branch managers in England and Wales who were caught up in one of the United Kingdom’s biggest miscarriages of justice.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the legislation “marks an important step forward in finally clearing” the names of those who were convicted on the basis of a faulty computer accounting system, known as Horizon, and have faced long delays in having their compensation claims assessed.

“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,” he said.

Under the terms of the bill, which is expected to become law by the summer, convictions will be automatically quashed if they meet certain conditions, including if they were brought forward by the Post Office or the state’s Crown Prosecution Service.

The offenses also had to be carried out between 1996 and 2018, related to relevant offences such as theft, fraud and false accounting, and anyone using the faulty Horizon software. More than 700 so-called subpostmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office and handed criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015.

Those with overturned convictions will receive an interim payment with the option of immediately taking a fixed and final offer of 600,000 pounds ($760,000). Those who suffered financially but weren’t convicted will be offered “enhanced” financial redress and those who have already settled will have their compensation topped up. The option remains for claims to be assessed under the normal process in which there is no limit.

Many lawyers have voiced concern about the proposed legislation to quash convictions, arguing that it sets a dangerous precedent for the future of politicians meddling with court rulings.

“An exceptional scheme such as this can only be justified by extraordinary circumstances,” said Nick Emmerson, president of The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales.

“It cannot be treated as a precedent or justify further government intervention in the independence of our justice system,” he added.

Calls for a rapid settlement have escalated this year after a television docudrama fueled public outrage. The ITV show, “Mr. Bates vs. the Post Office,” told the story of former branch manager Alan Bates, played by Toby Jones, who spent around two decades after leaving his job trying to expose the scandal and exonerate his peers.

Bates and others diligently found that the Horizon information technology system introduced by the Post Office 25 years ago to automate sales accounting, led to unexplained losses that bosses said local managers were responsible to cover.

A group of postal workers took legal action against the Post Office in 2016. Three years later, the High Court in London ruled that Horizon contained a number of “bugs, errors and defects” and that the Post Office “knew there were serious issues about the reliability” of the system.

In January, Fujitsu, the Japanese company behind Horizon, apologized for its role in the scandal and confirmed that it was aware that the system had bugs.

An official inquiry is ongoing.



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