UK ministers are examining plans for a blanket exoneration of hundreds of sub-postmasters wrongly convicted in what has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in modern British history.
Justice secretary Alex Chalk will this week discuss with senior members of the judiciary swifter redress for those prosecuted by the Post Office for theft and false accounting on the basis of a faulty IT system.
Postal affairs minister, Kevin Hollinrake, told MPs on Monday that criminal convictions were being overturned at a “slow pace” and pledged the government would take action to speed up appeals.
“We are looking at a collective exoneration to see what is legally possible,” Hollinrake said.
Campaigners are pushing for such a move, arguing that the existing process to overturn convictions and therefore allow those wrongly convicted to secure compensation is deeply flawed.
But some top lawyers questioned how such a measure would be implemented and warned that legislation to overturn criminal convictions risked undermining the independence of the judiciary.
What is the Horizon IT scandal?
Between 2000 and 2014 the state-owned Post Office prosecuted hundreds of sub-postmasters after financial shortfalls were identified at their branches as a result of faulty evidence from the Horizon IT system.
Those affected were forced to make repayments. A large number of people were pursued through civil litigation, while the most serious cases resulted in criminal prosecutions. More than 700 sub-postmasters were ultimately convicted over a 14-year period, despite many pleading their innocence.
How many cases have been overturned so far?
Thirty-nine criminal convictions for theft, fraud and false accounting were overturned in a landmark Court of Appeal ruling in 2021 that also paved the way for more appeals.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission, the body responsible for investigating potential miscarriages of justice, has referred 70 Post Office cases to the Court of Appeal.
In total, 93 people have had their convictions quashed.
What hurdles do sub-postmasters pursuing appeals need to overcome?
Sub-postmasters are required to bring their case to the CCRC, which can refer the matter to either the Crown Court or Court of Appeal.
The process has had low uptake and has been widely criticised, not least for its glacial speed. At the current rate it would take at least 15 years before all cases were reviewed.
Campaigners say many individuals refuse to go through a lengthy legal process that may simply result in their conviction being upheld.
So far, 54 convictions have been upheld for various reasons, including that genuine instances of theft took place.
Several lawyers said a key problem was that the CCRC and judiciary did not have the capacity to cope with miscarriages of justice on such a scale.
Paul Marshall, a barrister who has represented sub-postmasters, said the delays were the result of a justice system that was “grievously and seriously underfunded. There aren’t the lawyers, administrators or judges to deal with large numbers of wrongful convictions”.
Laura Janes, consultant solicitor at GT Stewart Solicitors & Advocates, said: “The wider issue here is the huge problem with our criminal appeals system, which is totally inaccessible for many people. This scandal shines a light on that.”
What is the government planning to do about it?
Ministers are discussing removing the Post Office from the appeals process and replacing it with the Crown Prosecution Service.
The change would mean the Post Office, which has objected to sub-postmaster appeals in several cases, is not permitted to give evidence or contribute to proceedings. Instead the CPS would take responsibility, though there is no guarantee this would hasten the process.
“There has to be a move to remove the Post Office from anything to do with the conduct of appeals,” Marshall said. “The Post Office as prosecuting authority ought to be replaced with an independent prosecuting authority.”
An advisory board that ministers set up to help devise policy on compensation for the affected sub-postmasters recommended last month that the government go further. It called for all Post Office convictions that involved data from the Horizon system through legislation to be overturned.
Can the government overturn convictions?
A former senior government lawyer said that it was open to parliament to pass a law that would overturn the convictions. While it would be a “rare step”, it was technically possible. “It’s rare to have miscarriages of justice on this scale, where you have whole swaths of convictions,” they said.
James Chalmers, regius professor of law at the University of Glasgow, said legislation could be “passed quickly” in principle.
Tyrone Steele, interim legal director at campaign group Justice, said a blanket exoneration was “the simplest, quickest and probably most just way of going about the whole thing”.
“The CCRC does not have the resources and a lot of the victims don’t want to go through this lengthy, complicated process,” said Steele.
What would be the implications of such a move?
Lawyers warned that depending on its scope, legislation could impede the ordinary functioning of the courts and set a precedent that might embolden parliament to upend convictions in other cases in future.
There is a separation of powers between parliament and the judiciary under the UK’s uncodified constitution that any law to exonerate sub-postmasters would intrude on, lawyers said.
The government might be seen as “trespassing on the bailiwick of the courts,” said Marshall. He said a blanket exoneration was “very difficult to envisage”.
Chalmers said another difficulty in passing such an act would be identifying in a timely manner who would be covered by the exoneration. He said the government would have to accept that a “few guilty people” would benefit and become eligible for compensation.
“Blanket measures often throw up difficulties in law. They avoid the essential feature of the criminal law which is to provide an individualised approach to ensure justice, although they may be justified in exceptional cases such as this,” Janes said.
Christopher Hodges, chair of the compensation board and an emeritus law professor at Oxford, said that while he appreciated such concerns, ultimately it was a matter of proportionality and fairness.
Sub-postmasters “have been out of money for a very long time”, he noted. “They need justice and compensation soon.”