Post office scandal: Ministers consider options to speed up justice

  • By Sam Francis
  • Political Correspondent, BBC News

image source, Good pictures

Justice Secretary Alex Sack has met with senior judges to discuss possible solutions to the Post Office IT scandal.

The focus of the meeting was on expediting the process for Deputy Postmasters seeking cancellation of their convictions.

More than 700 people were criminally convicted after the Post Office introduced the faulty software.

Postal Minister Kevin Hollinrake said the government was exploring ways to repeal the penalties.

Mr Hollinrake suggested this could include possible legislation.

He also said Fujitsu, the tech company behind the flawed software, and anyone responsible should be “held accountable, including paying any money” to compensate victims.

“We have laid out some options to resolve pending criminal convictions with even greater speed,” the minister said.

The scandal has been described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice the UK has ever seen. Between 1999 and 2015, the Postal Service sued 736 deputy postmasters and deputy postmistresses — an average of one per week — based on data from a computer system called Horizon.

Many maintained their innocence and said they had repeatedly reported problems with the software.

But some stole and went to jail by filing false accounts. Many suffered financial losses.

The scandal sparked an ITV drama last week that brought it back into the public consciousness.

The Metropolitan Police said the post office is investigating possible fraud offenses arising from the case records.

Campaigners have called for the Post Office to be barred from taking part in appeals against the convictions of former deputy postmasters.

Sir Keir Starmer has called for the Post Office's prosecution powers to be scrapped.

“I think the prosecution should be taken out of the hands of the Post Office and handed over to the Crown Prosecution Service,” he said.

“These beliefs, like the rest of the beliefs, must be viewed as a whole.”

The government also announced that retired judge Sir Gary Higginbottom will chair an independent panel overseeing compensation for those whose convictions have been overturned.

image caption,

The cast of ITV's Mr Bates vs The Post Office follows the lives of those caught up in IT failure.

Two former justice secretaries have called for the legislation to be brought in as soon as possible.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, justice secretary under Tony Blair, said the government “could introduce new laws tomorrow and there would be no opposition in parliament”.

“This is an absolutely shocking scandal that has been going on for years and is now at the top of the political agenda.

“Everyone agrees that it will take years to get rid of those other penalties unless there is a change in practice.”

In a letter to The Times, Mr Sack's predecessor, Sir Robert Buckland, said: “Too many deputy postmasters have already died without seeing justice done, so there is no time to lose.”

Speaking in the House of Commons, Sir Robert said he would back a new law to “create a presumption of innocence” for those convicted of faulty software.

However, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve said the new law would be a form of “parliamentary interference in the judicial process”.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: “It's a shortcut, and some people may be dissatisfied that they haven't been fully released.

Some have called for the Criminal Cases Review Commission – which investigates alleged miscarriages of justice – to look at cases and take longer to introduce new legislation.

Professor Graham Jellick, a former head of the CCRC, said he believed the cases could be dealt with more quickly because of a “common feature” – the prosecution's case depends on evidence obtained from the computer system.

“When you find that the conviction is clearly, manifestly unsafe and should be overturned, that's why the Court of Appeals can deal with these cases so quickly,” he said on the Today show.

'Keep the pace'

Alan Bates, the former deputy postmaster who led efforts for justice, told the BBC he believed a “resolution” was “imminent”.

Mr Bates, who played Toby Jones in the ITV drama, said the years it had taken to get to this point had been “frustrating” but said the ITV show had helped a “wider audience” understand what had happened.

“The most important thing is for the government to ensure that this financial relief goes quickly, to get it quickly, not to wait and spend money with lawyers over and over again,” he said.

“We've got to keep up the pressure, we've got to push people and we've got to keep the whole thing moving and keep the momentum going.

“The group has lost 60 or 70 people since we started all this. People have to get on with life, and they have to draw a line under it — they'll never forget it, but they can get by. Unfortunately, they need money to keep them going.

“This money is just what they're owed. It's money to put them back in place if the Post Office hadn't done what they did to them.”

Removes titles

There is also a campaign to remove former Post Office boss Paula Vennells CBE over the scandal.

Ms Vennells, who was chief executive of the Post Office between 2012 and 2019, has been urged to lose her honour.

An official spokesman for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “The Prime Minister shares the public outrage over this issue. He will strongly support the confiscation panel if it decides to review the case.”

If a person has brought the organization into disrepute, the Confiscation Committee may recommend forfeiture of honors.

Ms Vennells said she was “truly sorry for the distress caused to the deputy postmasters and their families who were wrongfully prosecuted”.

He said that he would fully support and continue to cooperate with the ongoing public inquiry into corruption.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey also faced fresh scrutiny over his role as postal affairs minister during the coalition government.

His predecessor Sir Vince Cable, who was business secretary during that period, told BBC Radio 4's World at One that Sir Ed had been made a “scapegoat”.

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