Ministers reject alternative judicial plan to mass exoneration of post office victims

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The British government was adamant on Friday that it would not accept judiciary plans that would reverse Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s promise to clear victims of the Post Office Horizon scandal en masse.

Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake met with Alex Chalk, the justice minister, on Tuesday to discuss plans put forward by the judiciary that would allow the attorney general to present cases in batches that could be overturned in the Court of Appeal, according to three people briefed on the proposals .

The measures threatened to undermine Sunak’s pledge to use legislation to clear the names of all affected postmasters and see their convictions quashed by the end of the year.

The Ministry of Justice said: “The Prime Minister has been clear: we will introduce primary legislation which will exempt those affected by the historic Horizon scandal.”

More than 900 sub-postmasters have been convicted in cases involving data from Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system since its introduction in 1999, including more than 700 brought by the post office itself.

Hollinrake told the Financial Times that the judiciary’s proposals come from “expert voices”, but the government will continue with its original plans and is in the process of finalizing the legislation.

Christopher Hodges, chairman of the government-appointed Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, said most victims didn’t care how exoneration happens, but how quickly it could be delivered. “People expect it to get done and to get done quickly,” he said.

Passing legislation to allow a blanket exemption would represent an unprecedented move by the government. The decision, made in an election year, has been criticized by members of the judiciary who say it violates the independence of the courts.

Alex Gesso
Alex Chalk: “It’s to avoid what would be an even greater injustice, which is people going to their graves unfairly labeled as dishonest people when exactly the opposite is true.” © Charlie Bibby/FT

Chalk told the FT in an interview that he felt a “real sense of unease about taking an exceptional course of action” to exempt sub-postmasters using legislation. He acknowledged that a number of guilty individuals would benefit from an “unexpected acquittal.”

“It’s to avoid what would be an even greater injustice, which is people going to their graves unfairly labeled as dishonest people when the opposite is true,” Chalk added.

Dame Sue Carr, Lord Chief Justice, said at a press conference this week that she had not seen the government’s current proposals but would speak out if she felt the plans undermined the rule of law.

“It is up to the courts to make judicial decisions,” Carr said. “These are court-ordered sentences, and if there comes a time when the rule of law needs to be addressed in this context, then I will address it.”

Lawyers for the sub-postmasters said this week that their clients were still proceeding with appeals because of uncertainty over the prime minister’s plans.

“The sub-postmasters and mistresses have been made many promises by many people over time and these have not been kept,” said Mike Schwarz, a lawyer acting for the sub-postmasters. “What the government has announced is currently following a similar pattern.”

Schwarz said some victims decided to pursue their appeals because of a lack of confidence in the government’s initial commitment. Sunak had pledged to bring forward legislation “within weeks” but had not done so.

Neil Hudgell, an attorney representing more than 70 relieved sub-postmasters and more than 50 potential claimants, said he will “move forward as normal” with the cases given the lack of details on the promised legislation.

The Court of Appeal quashed four convictions of sub-postmasters this year, after overturning 100 to date. He is reviewing some cases in batches and is currently evaluating six more applications.

The FT revealed last month that the Post Office had warned ministers in January that it would oppose around 333 appeals due to corroborating evidence. Lawyers for the state-owned company are carrying out a review of the cases and have written to some sub-postmasters where they believe there are grounds to appeal.

An overturned conviction is a precondition for sub-postmasters to receive compensation, making them eligible for a £600,000 award or a more substantial offer via a formal application.

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