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The Post Office Offences Bill leaves much unresolved

Were it not for an unexpected general election announcement on an otherwise unremarkable wet Wednesday in May, we would now be debating the Post Office Offences Bill in the House of Lords.

On the face of it, this is unproblematic. The Bill was passed in what is called “wash up”, the period following the prime minister’s announcement when all the bills before Parliament at that point are either passed or dropped.

It is very good that the Bill did get through. It is so long overdue, for so many hundreds of those wrongfully convicted postmistresses and postmasters.

Sadly, however, it is not the whole story. There are at least three issues which we should have been able to discuss and, potentially, resolve through a vote in the Lords had we had the chance.

Thirteen excluded from justice

The most significant and urgent of these is the fact that the bill does not cover all of those so horrifically wrongly convicted. There are thirteen people who the government deliberately set outside the provisions of the bill.

Their reasoning, wrongly in my view, is that because their appeals had been heard and upheld by the Court of Appeal, Parliament could not intervene. 

Essentially, this is punishing those individuals for their assiduity in getting their cases to the appellant court in as quick a time as possible. 

If they had not, they would have been included within the provisions of the bill. This must be urgently addressed by the next government.

This could have been easily and quickly achieved by simply removing Clause 1(2)(c) which reads: “This Act applies to a conviction in England and Wales for a relevant offence where the conviction has not been considered by the Court of Appeal in England and Wales”.

Our aim was to remove this clause as the bill progressed through the Lords. We did not get the chance.

When the King’s Speech is read by His Majesty on 17 July, I desperately hope there is legislation to address this continuing wrong. The reality, I fear, is there will not. Our pressure must continue until justice is delivered for all.

Post Office power to bring prosecutions

Second, perhaps the most pernicious part of all these proceedings, is the role of the Post Office as it brought these private prosecutions. I had proposed an amendment to, at the very least, look at this power and how it had operated in this instance.

The wording of my amendment was: “The secretary of state must, within six months of the passing of this Act, lay before Parliament a report on section 6 of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. The review must, among other things, cover: the role of section 6 in the convictions of those whose convictions were quashed under this Act; and whether additional safeguards, such as reporting requirements on the use of such prosecutions, are needed.”

Again, this is an urgent issue for the new government as we were denied the opportunity to make this change.

Admissibility of computer evidence

Finally, there is also the critical question of how computer evidence is adduced and examined in our legal system

It is only in the last 25 years that such evidence can be, if you will, taken on the nod, and in that time it has been assumed to be bone fide. 

If anything illustrates the insufficiency of such an approach it is the experience of those on the wrong end of the Post Office action.

I had tabled an amendment to address this exact issue. My proposed amendment would have set out: “The secretary of state must, within six months of this passing of this Act, lay before Parliament a review of the role of computer evidence in the convictions quashed under this Act. The review under subsection (1) may include recommendations to address any issues identified by the review in relation to standards of computer evidence used in court proceedings.”

An important issue, still in need of urgent attention. A huge question for our justice system in the age of artificial intelligence.

Conclusion

We did not get the opportunity to make the Post Office Bill better. It finds its way into statute as a suboptimal piece of legislation, passed through an inadequate, rushed wash-up process, leaving several critical issues unresolved. For the next government, this must be at the top of page one of their priorities.

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