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Thu. Apr 25th, 2024

The UK government declared on Wednesday its intention to unilaterally overturn wrongful theft convictions of hundreds of self-employed Post Office branch managers who fell victim to faulty software

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in an extraordinary decision, announced the forthcoming legislation aimed at exonerating and compensating subpostmasters, describing it as an effort to rectify “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history.”

This decision follows renewed scrutiny of a scandal spanning two decades, wherein hundreds of subpostmasters faced unjust theft convictions due to glitches in Fujitsu’s then-new “Horizon” accounting software. Some were pursued in civil courts, leading to fines and substantial legal expenses. Prime Minister Sunak declared during his parliamentary announcement, “People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own. The victims must get justice and compensation.”

The government plans to introduce primary legislation for the swift exoneration and compensation of those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal. The proposed compensation includes an upfront payment of £600,000 per individual or the opportunity for claims to be individually assessed. Additionally, participants in group civil litigation will qualify for a new upfront payment of £75,000. Business minister Kevin Hollinrake acknowledged the exceptional nature of this step, emphasizing its proportionality to the unprecedented circumstances.

In recent years, the government has disbursed almost £150 million in compensation to over 2,500 individuals embroiled in the scandal. Hollinrake emphasized the need for an efficient compensation process, stating that postmasters would be required to sign a statement swearing their innocence. Any subsequent dishonesty in these statements could lead to potential fraud prosecution.

The scandal, which began in the early 2000s, left numerous lives shattered, with some Post Office branch managers facing imprisonment, bankruptcy, loss of homes, and health issues. Tragically, four individuals took their own lives, and many exonerated postmasters passed away without seeing their names cleared. The High Court ruled in 2019 that computer errors, not criminality, were responsible for the missing money.

The government’s announcement follows heightened public awareness generated by a television drama depicting the victims’ ordeal. Former Post Office boss Paula Vennells, facing public anger, pledged to return a royal honour received from Queen Elizabeth II. Postmasters welcomed the government’s move, emphasizing the importance of quashing convictions and legislative action to bring closure to this prolonged injustice.

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