Fast Track Justice - For Some

The government has introduced the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill before Parliament; if passed, the resultant Act will automatically overturn convictions for certain offences linked to the Post Office Horizon scandal.

Craig MacKenzie
Craig MacKenzie

Published: March 22nd, 2024

7 min read

The government has introduced the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill before Parliament; if passed, the resultant Act will automatically overturn convictions for certain offences linked to the Post Office Horizon scandal.

The Post Office Horizon IT scandal has been described as the one of UK's most widespread miscarriages of justice.

A number of postmasters, who run individual post office branches, experienced problems with the Horizon Post Office computer system, which was piloted from 1996 and rolled out in 2000. Errors in the system showed false shortfalls on the accounts of postmasters, which the Post Office then demanded they cover or saw them face suspension and prosecution. This led to bankruptcies, health problems, family breakdowns and suicides.

Hundreds of people were convicted using evidence from the Horizon system.

The ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, screened in early January 2024, drew more attention to the scandal.

This Bill would automatically quash convictions for specified offences of dishonesty (including false accounting, fraud and theft) that were prosecuted by the Post Office or the Crown Prosecution Service.

Convictions that have already been considered by the Court of Appeal would be excluded from the Bill, and any further appeals (which are difficult to mount) would be via the Criminal Cases Review Commission.

The Secretary of State would have a duty to identify individuals whose convictions have been quashed by the Bill, and to notify them (or another party on their behalf) that their conviction has been quashed.

The convicting court would be required to replace the record of conviction with a record that the conviction has been quashed by the Bill.

The legislation will have no effect in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Is the Bill controversial?

Speaking in the Commons, the Conservative MP and Chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Robert Neill said:

"The Minister says this is exceptional, and it is constitutionally unprecedented to overturn, through legislation, convictions imposed by our courts in good faith, based on the evidence before them at the time. Frankly, it is most undesirable that we should ever go down that route […]

Some of us will need to see the detail of the legislation and what evidence the Government have that it will be quicker and more comprehensive to quash convictions via this constitutionally unprecedented route, rather than leaving the courts to deal with it, with assistance."

The Lady Chief Justice has also observed:

"[It is] for the courts to make judicial decisions. 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..."

The government is, however, undeterred, and the Bill is likely to become an Act of Parliament by the Summer, even though it acknowledges that inevitably, some of the people cleared of wrongdoing by this legislation may well have been guilty all along. That, they say, is a price worth paying, and a great many people agree with that sentiment.

If you have been affected by the Horizon scandal and are in doubt as to what if any steps you need to take next, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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