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What is the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill?

The Post Office Horizon IT Public Inquiry is an investigation into the failings that occurred with the Horizon IT system at the Post Office, and which tragically led to the wrongful suspension, prosecution and conviction of hundreds of Sub-Postmasters.

Our firm’s detailed summary of the background to the Post Office Inquiry can be found here.

What is the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill?

Last month, while the Inquiry remains ongoing, the Government published The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill (“the Bill”).

Notably, if passed, the Bill would automatically overturn all convictions for certain offences alleged to have been committed while the Horizon system was in use by the Post Office.

Under the proposed Bill, convictions will be automatically overturned if they were:

  1. Prosecuted by the Post Office or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS);
  2. For offences carried out in connection with Post Office business between 1996 and 2018;
  1. For specified offences of dishonesty (including false accounting, fraud and theft); and
  1. Against Sub-Postmasters, their employees, officers, family members or direct employees of the Post Office working in a Post Office that used the Horizon system software.

Convictions that have already been considered by the Court of Appeal would be excluded from the Bill.

Will those who have had their convictions overturned be compensated?

The Bill itself does not provide for compensation. However, the Government has announced plans to establish a new Horizon Convictions Redress Scheme that will make compensation payments to those who have had their convictions overturned by the Bill.

The Government has also stated it will provide enhanced financial redress for Postmasters who were not convicted, or part of legal action against the Post Office, but who still suffered considerably due to Horizon failures.

Why is the Bill significant?

The Bill is somewhat unprecedented. Individuals who seek to have their convictions overturned are usually required to apply to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (“CCRC”). The CCRC will then refer the case to the Court of Appeal if it is satisfied that there is a real possibility the Court will agree there has been a miscarriage of justice – and only the Court of Appeal can then overturn the conviction.

Prior to the proposed Post Office Bill, there has been no legislation allowing this process to be forgone.

What has been the response to the Bill?

While the overturning of the unlawful convictions of victims of the Post Office scandal is widely welcomed, there has been some controversy around the Bill.

Some say, by legislating to overturn convictions, Parliament is interfering with judicial independence and setting a dangerous precedent.

In addition, by overturning all convictions that meet the above criteria, there are concerns that guilty individuals could also be acquitted and receive compensation. In an attempt to combat this, the Government has therefore stated that, before receiving compensation, individuals would be required to sign a legal undertaking, pledging their innocence, at the risk of being prosecuted for fraud if they lie.

What’s next?

The Bill is still passing through the House of Commons, and must also be passed through the House of Lords, and receive Royal Assent, before it will become law.

Meanwhile, the Post Office Inquiry is currently undergoing “Phases 5 and 6” of its public hearings. These phases are hearing evidence from witnesses, such as senior figures at Post Office, Fujitsu and Royal Mail; politicians and civil servants; and campaigners, on governance, access to justice, the response of the Post Office and others to the scandal, and redress.

Once this evidence has concluded, the Inquiry is set to hold its final “Phase 7” hearings in September 2024, looking at current practice and procedure and recommendations for the future. The Inquiry’s report and recommendations will follow thereafter.

Our lawyers at Saunders law are experts in Public Inquiries and actions against public authorities. For advice about a Public Inquiry, or making a claim against the state, please contact us on 020 7632 4300 to discuss your concerns.

 

 

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