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Lawyers warn on Post Office ‘precedent’
(Pic: Shutterstock)

11 Jan 2024 / britain Print

Lawyers warn on Post Office ‘legal precedent’

The legal profession in England and Wales has welcomed the British Government’s pledge to legislate to exonerate all victims of what has become known as the Post Office Horizon scandal, according to the Law Society Gazette of England and Wales.

Solicitors warned, however, that the measure must not set a precedent for interference in the justice system.

The scandal was the result of glitches in a software system that incorrectly showed money missing from accounts in post-office branches.

This led to hundreds of postmasters being wrongly prosecuted or convicted between 1999 and 2015 for false accounting, theft and fraud.

‘Exceptional circumstances’

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced yesterday (10 January) that primary legislation would be brought forward as soon as possible to overturn the convictions of all Post Office staff who were convicted on the basis of evidence from the Horizon IT system.

Explaining the decision in the House of Commons, Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake said that this was “an exceptional step, but these are exceptional circumstances”.

Those with convictions removed would be eligible for a take-it-or-leave-it offer of £600,000 compensation, although they could opt to have their claims individually assessed.

Hollinrake said that postmasters would be asked to sign a statement that they did not commit the crimes of which they were accused, with anyone subsequently found to be lying putting themselves at risk of prosecution for fraud.

Legal redress

The Law Society of England and Wales welcomed the proposal to exonerate all victims of the scandal, which the Gazette says has dominated the news agenda since last week’s showing of an ITV drama on the issue, Mr Bates v The Post Office.

Society president Nick Emmerson accepted that ministers had carefully considered the difficult legal and constitutional issues, and that it was in the interests of the victims and the wider public that legal redress was made available quickly.

But he added: “Such an exceptional scheme can only be justified in these very extraordinary circumstances. It cannot be treated as a precedent or justify further government intervention in the independence of our justice system.”

The Bar Council said that it would examine the plans carefully, and warned against setting a legal and constitutional precedent.

Gazette Desk
Gazette.ie is the daily legal news site of the Law Society of Ireland