A TV drama on the Post Office’s faulty Horizon system has forced the government to act to bring justice and compensation to the postmasters caught up in the scandal.
Retailers caught up in the Horizon scandal can finally see light at the end of the tunnel after the UK government announced it is to introduce new legislation to make sure that those convicted as a result of the faulty IT system are swiftly “exonerated and compensated”.
The move comes after recent ITV drama ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ thrust the issue back into the spotlight.
Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted 736 sub-postmasters and mistresses based on Horizon. More than 700 branch managers were given criminal convictions – only 93 of these convictions have been overturned.
In Scotland, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) – which investigates possible miscarriages of justice – wrote to 73 potential victims of the Horizon scandal in 2020. As of December 2023, only 16 people had come forward in Scotland to ask for their convictions to be reviewed. However, that number may rise in the coming weeks and months given the renewed publicity around the scandal.
In November 2022 the SCCRC gave six people permission to appeal Horizon convictions in court. Of those initial six cases, five have so far been overturned. The other one is still waiting for an outcome.
The government has now committed to making sure convictions are overturned later this year. Once the convictions have been quashed, individuals will be entitled to at least £600,000 in compensation.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history.
“People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own. The victims must get justice and compensation.”
In response, First Minister Humza Yousaf, said Scottish Ministers are keen to work with the UK Government to deal with the impact on sub-postmasters convicted in Scotland, ensuring that a UK-wide approach is taken to exonerate those wrongfully convicted in Scottish courts.
“Given the unique circumstances arising from the Post Office Horizon scandal, it is right that normal processes for appeals are set aside to ensure that justice can now be delivered for those whose lives were greatly impacted by their wrongful conviction,” Yousaf added.
The renewed interest in the scandal has also left Scotland’s Crown Office facing questions over its role in the wrongful prosecution of sub-postmasters. Prosecutors in Scotland were told of issues with evidence in 2013, but did not stop pursuing cases until 2015.
Scotland’s top law officer Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain KC recently appeared before the Scottish Parliament to answer questions about the scandal.
She told MSPs: “It is simply wrong to assert that Crown Office officials knew that there were problems with the Horizon system… did nothing about it and continued to prosecute in the face of reported problems. That’s just not what happened.”
Responding to questioning about why the Crown did not review previous cases or halt prosecutions earlier, Bain repeated that “responsibility lies with Post Office”.
Bain also told MSPs she was “looking urgently” at the specialist reporting role of the Post Office in Scotland, adding that any investigation into allegations of criminality on the part of the Post Office will need to wait until after the UK-wide public inquiry “and the full scale of their actions is understood”.
She also took the time to apologise to postmasters that were wrongfully convicted, saying: “I understand your anger and I apologise for the way you have been failed by trusted institutions and the criminal justice system and I stand beside you in your pursuit of justice.”
The Metropolitan Police is also set to investigate the scandal, but a national investigation will only start once the public inquiry into the scandal has presented its findings, expected to be late next year.
Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley has warned detectives will have to read “tens of millions of documents” to decide whether laws have been broken, and that will probably take at least until 2026.
Since the airing of the ITV drama, around 130 people affected by the scandal have now come forward.
Nick Read, Post Office Chief Executive, said: “We hope that the ITV drama will raise further awareness and encourage anyone affected who has not yet come forward to seek the redress and compensation they deserve.”
The TV drama has also resulted in former Post Office Chief Executive Paula Vennells being forced to hand back her CBE after a petition calling on her to do so attracted more than 1.2 million signatures.
Meanwhile, Post Office Chairman Henry Staunton, who took up the post in December 2022, was told by the Business Secretary at the end of January that he was to be replaced as a result of frustration at how the organisation has dealt with the fallout of the Horizon IT scandal. An interim chairman is to be appointed by the government in due course.