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Over 700 wrongful subpostmaster convictions overturned by new legislation

The legislation required to quash the convictions of wrongly prosecuted subpostmasters has been passed by Parliament as part of the “wash up” of pending laws following the announcement of the UK general election on 4 July.

Once the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill receives Royal Assent, it will allow branch managers convicted of theft, false accounting and other charges as a result of problems caused by the Post Office’s controversial Horizon IT system to have their convictions overturned en masse.

More than 900 people were convicted after being prosecuted by the Post Office when Horizon showed money missing from their branch accounts. Despite Post Office investigators never finding what happened to the money they claimed was missing, nor producing any other proof to support the losses, data from Horizon was used to “prove” their guilt.

In many cases, subpostmasters charged with theft were offered last-minute plea deals to the lesser charge of false accounting, which they accepted on the basis they would most likely avoid a prison sentence. In fact, many were still sentenced to a term in jail.

Since the High Court ruling in 2019 that proved Horizon was to blame for the phantom losses, about a hundred people have had their convictions overturned. The new legislation was introduced to speed up the process of exonerating the remaining victims of the scandal so they can claim compensation. Many will now be eligible for a payment of £600,000, or can choose to pursue an individual settlement of their claims.

When prime minister Rishi Sunak announced this week that the general election would take place on 4 July, there were fears the legislation would get lost in the dissolution of Parliament, but the government chose it as one of the outstanding bills to be fast-tracked through the “wash-up” process to rush through any remaining laws.

Kevin Hollinrake, minister of state at the Department for Business and Trade, who has championed the bill through Parliament, wrote on X (formerly Twitter): “Delighted that around 700 convictions resulting from prosecutions by the Post Office and Crown Prosecution Service will be overturned today after we passed the legislation yesterday. Historic day delivered due to support from members across both houses. Thank you to all.”

The legislation was introduced as a result of the public outcry provoked by the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, broadcast at the start of January. It comes 25 years after Horizon was implemented, which led to hundreds of prosecutions in the years after. Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, yet it has taken a further 15 years for the government to exonerate victims.

However, the legislation will not help everyone affected by the scandal. The Scottish government is introducing its own legislation to exonerate subpostmasters convicted under Scottish law. Also, some victims have been excluded because their convictions were not reliant on evidence from Horizon – campaigners say that the revelations from the Post Office public inquiry should be enough to prove that these convictions are also unsafe.

Between 2000 and 2015, 736 subpostmasters were convicted of crimes including theft and false accounting after the Post Office prosecuted them using evidence from the Horizon retail and accounting system used in thousands of branches.

The Horizon system was proved to be error-prone during a High Court legal battle that began in 2018. Led by former subpostmaster Alan Bates, a group of 555 members of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) sued the Post Office to prove that errors in the Horizon system were causing unexplained accounting discrepancies. It is often referred to as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

The Post Office Horizon scandal was first exposed by Computer Weekly in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmasters and the problems they suffered due to accounting software (see below timeline of all Computer Weekly articles about the Horizon scandal, since 2009).

• Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal

• Also watch: ITV’s documentary – Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story

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