The legal profession today welcomed the government’s pledge to legislate to exonerate all victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal – with the caveat that it must not set a precedent for interference in the justice system.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak announced today that primary legislation will be brought forward as soon as possible to overturn the convictions of all Post Office staff who were convicted on the basis of evidence from the Horizon IT system.
Explaining the decision in the House of Commons, Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said this was ‘an exceptional step, but these are exceptional circumstances’. Those with convictions removed would be eligible for the government’s take-it-or-leave-it offer of £600,000 compensation, although they can opt to have their claims individually assessed.
Hollinrake said postmasters will be asked to sign a statement that they did not commit the crimes of which they were accused, with anyone subsequently found to be lying putting themselves at risk of prosecution for fraud.
‘I do not pretend to the house that that is a foolproof device, but it is a proportionate one that respects the ordeal that these people have already suffered,’ he said. ‘It means that an honest postmaster will have his or her conviction overturned and, just by signing one document, can secure compensation.’
The minister added that this move should not be taken as criticism of the judiciary, saying that original decisions were ‘taken in good faith in the understanding that prosecutions were properly conducted and that assertions about the robustness of the Horizon system were true’.
Addressing potential critics, he asked: ‘Would they leave many people suffering under the burden of unjust convictions for many years – perhaps forever – with no access to compensation, or would they create some administrative process for deciding innocence, which would be more onerous for the victims?’
The Law Society welcomed the government proposal to exonerate all victims of the scandal, which has dominated the news agenda since last week’s showing of the ITV drama Mr Bates v The Post Office.
Society president Nick Emmerson accepted that ministers carefully considered the difficult legal and constitutional issues and that it was in the interests of the victims and the wider public that legal redress is made available quickly.
But he added: ‘Such an exceptional scheme can only be justified in these very extraordinary circumstances. It cannot be treated as a precedent or justify further government intervention in the independence of our justice system.’
The Bar Council said it would examine the plans carefully and cautioned the government against setting a legal and constitutional precedent.
Bar chair Sam Townend KC added: ‘There are many lessons to be learned from the Post Office scandal. Not only is there a clear case for parliament to review the ability of certain corporate bodies to bring private prosecutions, but it also highlights the vital importance of access to legal advice and the urgent need to repair confidence in the justice system.’