Friday 23 February 2024

Post Office ~ Horizon ~ proposed legislation

A Bill will be introduced by the government to "make sure that those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal, which began in the 1990s, are swiftly exonerated and compensated" - see the Written statement 22 February 2024

The government claims that the planned legislation "does not set a precedent for the future relationship between the executive, Parliament and the judiciary"  but "the scale and circumstances of this prosecutorial misconduct demands an exceptional response."

It is obvious enough that the government has, in this election year, been spurred into action

by ITV screening (over 1-4 January 2024)  the programme "Mr Bates and the Post Office" which truly brought the scandal to public knowledge in a way that the on-going Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry had not.

The intended legislation will "quash all convictions which are identified as being in scope. That scope will be defined by a set of clear and objective criteria which will be set out in the legislation and will not require any element of discretion or subjective analysis in order to be applied. The legislation will prescribe criteria, each of which will need to have been met, to determine the convictions to be quashed."

The plan is to address those prosecutions brought by the Post Office itself and also those brought by the Crown Prosecution Service. Prosecutions brought by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) will not be covered since Horizon data was not relied on in those cases.

The legislation will apply to those convictions that arose during the "period that the Horizon system (and its pilots) was in operation (with exact dates confirmed in due course)."

Only "relevant offences" will be in scope - mainly theft and false accounting.

Only sub-postmasters or their employees / officers or family members, or direct employees of the Post Office will be within the defined class of convictions to be quashed.

The convicted person will need to have been working (including working in a voluntary capacity) in a Post Office that was using the Horizon system software (including any relevant pilot schemes) at the time the behaviour constituting the offence occurred.

It is intended that the convictions in scope of this legislation will be quashed at the point of commencement of the legislation

It appears that the legislation will apply to England and Wales only but the government states that is "working closely with other jurisdictions on this important matter and wishes to see equitable outcomes for postmasters delivered across the whole of the UK."

"While it is for the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Executive to decide on, and progress, their own approaches to the quashing of convictions, we will work with them to ensure those are compatible with the UK compensation scheme - so that compensation can be paid to victims across the whole of the UK."

The legislation is likely to "exonerate a number of people who were, in fact, guilty of a crime. The Government accepts that this is a price worth paying in order to ensure that many innocent people are exonerated. A condition of access to financial redress will be that the individual "signs a statement to the effect that they did not commit the crime for which they were originally convicted." False statements could amount to fraud. 

The financial redress will be substantial. but this will operate outside the legislation. "Claimants will receive an interim payment of £163,000 within 28 days of applying. They can then choose between an up-front settlement offer topping up their redress to £600,000, or having their financial redress considered on an individual basis. Their reasonable legal costs will be met."


A number of those convicted are now dead. Will the scheme apply in some way to them and, if so, how?

The Lady Chief Justice is on record as stating that the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) could handle the workload - Courts “could cope” with large number of Post Office appeals, says LCJ - Legal Futures. Leaving the cases to the court would enable a named individual to be exonerated in a public forum as opposed to exoneration by a legislative scheme that does not name them. See Flaw in the ointment - by Joshua Rozenberg (

The whole idea of this legislation has received considerable criticism because Parliament and the Judiciary have their respective constitutional roles. Such criticisms appear to be based on "separation of the powers" arguments but, in reality, there has never been any formal "separation of powers" in the English legal system although, in practice, the respective roles of executive, legislature and judiciary are recognised and usually respected. It is entirely open to Parliament to legislate to address this form of grievance. See Robert Craig: The constitutional implications of legislating to exonerate the Post Office sub-postmasters – UK Constitutional Law Association.

Precisely what the statement means by "reasonable legal costs" is not clear. It would only add insult to injury if convicted individuals were left to have to pay any legal costs that were somehow deemed unreasonable.

The actual Bill has yet to be published.

23 February 2024.

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