Post Office Horizon scandal. PM Rishi Sunak confirms convictions will be quashed and victims compensated under new law
This week the news headlines in the UK have been dominated by the scandal of the Post Office and its Horizon computer system build by Fujitsu.
A public inquiry into the affair has resumed on Thursday, but the day before on Wednesday the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons that those previously convicted in England and Wales would be cleared of wrongdoing and compensated under a new law.
The government announced that “hundreds of innocent postmasters who were wrongfully convicted due to the Horizon scandal will have their names cleared under new laws to be brought forward by the government.”
It comes after the government in July 2021 had promised to compensate those postmasters who had their Horizon-related convictions overturned. It said at the time that the victims were to be offered an interim compensation payment of up to £100,000 each.
Two years later and the government has now said that its “blanket exoneration will overturn hundreds of convictions, brought about thanks to erroneous Horizon evidence, clearing the names of many people who have had their lives ruined.”
The Government said this week it has committed to making sure these convictions are overturned by the end of 2024, meaning victims do not need to wait years and years for the justice they deserve.
Once this legislation is passed and convictions have been quashed, individuals will be entitled to at least £600,000 in compensation to rebuild their lives.
“This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in this country’s history, with hundreds of people having their lives ruined and reputations dragged through mud,” said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
“Too many still have wrongful convictions tied to their name, and we cannot continue to fail them,” said Sunak. “We must do everything we can to exonerate and compensate these innocent people, and make sure they finally get the justice they deserve.”
The government also confirmed that it will take action to make sure the postmasters who played a crucial role in first exposing the Horizon scandal receive the compensation they deserve.
It is understood that this group – known as the Group Litigation Order cohort – who did not receive a criminal conviction but paid out considerable sums of money because of the Horizon failures, will receive at least £75,000 in compensation upfront.
The government will also consult the independent Advisory Board on the approach to compensation payments, to see if there are further steps it can take to hold the Post Office to account and speed up payments for everyone impacted by the scandal.
“Fairness is a core pillar of our justice system and there can be no doubt hundreds of innocent post-masters and mistresses have suffered an intolerable miscarriage of justice at the hands of the Post Office,” said Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk.
“These are truly exceptional circumstances, and we must right this wrong quickly, ensuring those convicted can be fairly and swiftly compensated,” said the Lord Chancellor.
It is understood that £1bn had been budgeted for compensation payments, to deal with the more than 900 convictions linked to the scandal over 16 years.
So far only 93 have been overturned.
Meanwhile Sir Wyn Williams’ Inquiry, set up in 2020 to look at issues of governance in the Post Office, resumed on Thursday and it will provide a full public record of how this miscarriage of justice was able to take place.
In the coming days, the government said it will consider whether this blanket exoneration should apply to the small number of convictions which have been upheld by the appeal courts.
The government legislation will only apply to England and Wales, but Scotland has also announced it will follow suite.
Meanwhile, there have been calls for Fujitsu, the supplier of the faulty Horizon IT system, to pay compensation to the sub-postmasters wrongly convicted for theft.
Sally Stringer one of the victims of the Post Office scandal, is angered that Fujitsu is still winning government contracts 20 years after the problems first arose.
Fujitsu has previously said it was sorry for its role in sub-postmasters’ suffering.
The Post Office scandal centred over the use of the Horizon accounting system from Fujitsu, which between 1999 and 2015 recorded transactions across Post Office branches.
Mistakes with Horizon caused sub-postmasters to be wrongly accused of fraud, and many were told to pay back supposedly missing funds or face criminal prosecution.
The problem became a political issue in 2009, when reports surfaced of sub-postmasters who had received heavy fines or jail terms for alleged false accounting, which they said resulted from problems with Horizon.
Thousands of sub-postmasters independently operate smaller post offices in the UK, and are obliged to make up shortfalls out of their own pockets.
In 2011, 85 sub-postmasters sought legal support in claims against the Post Office after being wrongly accused of taking money. In later years this figure rose to 550 sub-postmasters suing the Post Office.
Unfortunately, the Post Office management team always argued that there was no evidence of systemic problems with Horizon, but set up the mediation scheme in 2013 after independent investigators found defects in the software.
In 2014 more than 140 MPs said they could no longer support the Post Office’s mediation scheme after numerous complaints about Horizon.
Miscarriage of justice
A total of 960 convictions linked to the scandal are now under review, in what was dubbed the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.
Some of those convictions resulted in postmasters being jailed.
In December 2019 the Post Office agreed to pay almost £58 million as part of a settlement on the legal action by sub-postmasters, after they were wrongly accused of taking money.
But most of that money went on legal costs.
And to make matters worse, in June 2020 it was revealed that bosses at the Post Office had been told as far back as 2011 that Horizon could be to blame for the missing money.
Despite that, the Post Office still pursued prosecutions against staff anyway, with hundreds of postmasters sacked, going bankrupt or wrongfully imprisoned.
In December 2020, more than 500 sub-postmasters won a civil court case against the Post Office, and the judge at the time said that under the leadership the actions of the Post Office had been “both cruel and incompetent”.
The former Prime Minister Boris Johnston previously called the case an “appalling injustice”.
In April 2021 thirty nine sub-postmasters who were wrongly prosecuted by the Post Office had their criminal convictions overturned.
A week after that, Paula Vennells, who was in charge of the Post Office from 2012 to 2019, resigned her roles on the boards of the supermarket Morrisons and home furnishing store Dunelm.
Vennells also halted her duties as an ordained Church of England minister.
Vennell faced calls in 2021 to have her bonuses recovered and be stripped of her CBE title, which had been given for “services to the Post Office and to charity”.
She handed back her CBE this week.
It should be remembered that the problems with the Horizon system began before Vennell’s tenure as chief executive, but whilst she was in charge she had insisted the system was “robust”, and defended the technology and her organisation’s actions to a committee of MPs.
As chief executive, Vennell also chose to fight lengthy and expensive legal battles against sub-postmasters seeking redress.