Post office scandal victims law 'important step'

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People walking past a Post Office branchImage source, Getty Images

A new law will be introduced on Wednesday to clear the names of the hundreds of sub-postmasters wrongly convicted in the Post Office scandal.

The legislation is expected to clear the majority of victims in England and Wales by the end of July.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said it is “an important step forward in finally clearing” hundreds of sub-postmasters.

People who were not convicted but made up shortfalls from their own pockets will get £75,000.

As announced in September, sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted will get an option to settle for £600,000, without the need to bring a formal claim.

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 900 sub-postmasters were wrongly prosecuted due to a faulty accounts software called Horizon, which showed errors that did not exist.

The proposed Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill will help people whose lives had been “callously torn apart”, Mr Sunak said.

It is expected to come in to effect by the end of July and will apply to convictions in England and Wales. The law is expected to clear the majority of victims.

Under the law, the government said convictions will be automatically quashed if they:

  • 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.

The government previously said the possible exoneration of some genuinely guilty of crimes was “a price worth paying”.

There will also be “enhanced” financial redress for sub-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 of £75,000 through the Horizon Shortfall Scheme, the government said.

Sub-postmasters who have already settled for less money will have their compensation topped up to this level, and 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 government said the new Horizon Convictions Redress Scheme will be open for applications “as soon as possible” for people who have had their convictions quashed.

The new scheme will be run by the Department for Business and Trade.

Solicitor Neil Hudgell, whose firm represents more than 100 sub-postmasters whose convictions have yet to be set aside, said for them the “day cannot come soon enough” when they are exonerated.

He added that the £75,000 fixed sum for those who were not convicted was “welcome and helpful, but only in relation to the relatively small number of the overall victim base it will effect”.

In addition to the new law, a long running inquiry in to the scandal will launch a “listening project” to get the stories of people who were hit by the scandal.

The project, called “In Your Own Words”, wants to hear from “current or former sub-postmasters, family members, friends, community members, or other members of the public who may have reflections to share”.