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The UK government was adamant on Friday that it would not accept plans from the judiciary that would have rolled back Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s pledge to exonerate victims in the Post Office Horizon scandal en masse.
Postal affairs minister Kevin Hollinrake met Alex Chalk, the justice secretary, on Tuesday to discuss plans tabled by the judiciary that would have enabled the attorney-general to submit cases in groups 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 sub-postmasters and have their convictions quashed by the end of the year.
The Ministry of Justice said: “The prime minister was clear — we will introduce primary legislation that will exonerate those impacted by the historic Horizon scandal.”
More than 900 sub-postmasters were convicted in cases involving data from Fujitsu’s faulty Horizon IT system following its introduction in 1999, including more than 700 brought by the Post Office itself.
Hollinrake told the Financial Times that the judiciary’s proposals had come from “experienced voices” but the government would proceed with its original plans and was in the process of finalising legislation.
Christopher Hodges, chair of the government-appointed Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, said most victims did not care about how an exoneration happened but about how fast it could be delivered. “People expect it to be done and done quickly,” he said.
Passing legislation to enable a blanket exoneration would represent an unprecedented move by the government. The decision, taken in an election year, has been criticised by members of the judiciary who argue it encroaches on the independence of the courts.
Chalk told the FT in an interview he felt a “real sense of discomfort about taking an exceptional course” of action to exonerate sub-postmasters using legislation. He recognised that a number of guilty individuals would benefit from a “windfall acquittal”.
“It’s to avoid what would be an even greater injustice, which is people going to their graves unfairly badged as dishonest people when quite 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 considered that the plans undermined the rule of law.
“It is for the courts to make judicial decisions,” Carr said. “These are court-ordered convictions, and if there comes a point in time when the rule of law has to be confronted in this context, then I will confront it.”
Lawyers acting for the sub-postmasters said this week their clients were still proceeding with appeals because of uncertainty over the prime minister’s plans.
“The sub-postmasters and mistresses have been given lots of promises by a lot of people over time and they’ve not come to fruition,” said Mike Schwarz, a solicitor acting for the sub-postmasters. “What the government has announced is currently following a similar pattern.”
Schwarz said some victims had decided to pursue their appeals because of a lack of confidence in the government’s original pledge. Sunak had committed to tabling legislation “within weeks” but had failed to do so.
Neil Hudgell, a solicitor who represents more than 70 exonerated sub-postmasters and over 50 potential appellants, said he would “push on as normal” with cases given the lack of detail on the promised legislation.
The Court of Appeal has quashed four sub-postmaster convictions this year, having overturned 100 to date. It is hearing some cases in batches and currently considering six more applications.
The FT revealed last month that the Post Office warned ministers in January it would have opposed some 333 appeals because of corroborating evidence. The state-owned business’s lawyers are undertaking a review of cases and have written to some sub-postmasters where it considers there are grounds for appeal.
An overturned conviction is a precondition for sub-postmasters to receive compensation, making them eligible for a £600,000 award or a more substantive offer via a formal claim.