Britain to quash wrongful Post Office convictions

By Thomson Reuters Mar 12, 2024 | 7:03 PM

LONDON (Reuters) – Hundreds of innocent Post Office branch managers wrongly convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting as a result of flaws in an IT system will be exonerated by landmark legislation introduced on Wednesday, the British government said.

The self-employed sub-postmasters at the state-owned Post Office – many of them at the heart of their local communities – were prosecuted for alleged offences between 1996 and 2018.

Some served time in prison and many were financially ruined.

Public outrage about one of Britain’s biggest miscarriages of justice erupted after ITV dramatised the managers’ campaign in “Mr Bates vs the Post Office” in January.

The government said on Wednesday that affected sub-postmasters would receive an interim payment and the option of a final offer of 600,000 pounds ($766,080) so they could finally begin to rebuild their lives.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak paid tribute to all of the postmasters who had shown courage and perseverance in their fierce campaign for justice.

“While I know that nothing can make up for what they’ve been through, today’s legislation marks an important step forward in finally clearing their names,” he said.

The government said it would also compensate sub-postmasters who were not convicted but who still suffered due to failures in the Horizon IT system, with an option to receive 75,000 pounds.

Legal experts had warned that legislating to quash convictions meant that politicians were meddling in the independent judicial process.

But the government and the main opposition said the exceptional circumstances of the cases demanded an exceptional response.

The government conceded there was a risk that some who were guilty of a crime could have their convictions overturned, but it said it would make every effort to target only those wrongly convicted.

It said it wanted legislation to be enacted by the summer, with payments made as quickly as possible after convictions were annulled.

No one from the Post Office or its IT supplier Fujitsu has been charged with any offences related to the scandal.

($1 = 0.7832 pounds)

(Reporting by Paul Sandle; Editing by Lucy Marks)