The government is offering £600,000 to former subpostmasters who have had wrongful convictions overturned, to settle their claims – but a lawyer representing many of the victims of the Post Office scandal warns this could pressurise some to accept much less than they are entitled to.
A total of 86 former subpostmasters have so far had criminal convictions overturned as part of the Horizon scandal, with many more expected to follow. Over 900 people in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were prosecuted by the Post Office with data from the flawed Horizon system used as evidence to convict them.
Subpostmasters with overturned convictions who have already accepted compensation below the amount now offered will be paid extra to bring them up to that level, said the government.
The Department for Business & Trade said in a statement: “Our aim is to ensure as many postmasters involved receive this offer of compensation as fast as possible to help bring a resolution to the scandal.”
Any subpostmasters who have convictions based on Horizon evidence overturned in the future, will also be entitled to £600,000.
Computer Weekly first reported on the problems with the Fujitsu-supplied Horizon system in 2009, when it made public the stories of a group of subpostmasters whose lives were ruined when they were blamed for accounting shortfalls caused by computer errors (see timeline of Computer Weekly articles below).
Some were sent to prison, many were heavily fined, large numbers were made bankrupt and families were ruined. It has been described as the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK legal history. The CCRC began reviewing English cases in 2015, and the first convictions to be overturned came in December 2020. Until the High Court judgment in 2019, the Post Office had denied that unexplained shortfalls could be caused by Horizon errors.
Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake said: “This is about righting a wrong and providing some form of relief to those wrongfully caught up in this scandal. Too many postmasters have suffered and for too long, which is why the government remains committed to seeing this through to the end until it is resolved and ensuring this cannot ever happen again.”
Solicitor Neil Hudgell, of Hudgell Solicitors, who represents 70 former subpostmasters seeking compensation from the Post Office, welcomed the news, which he said came as a surprise. But he warned that subpostmasters who should be awarded much more, could be pressured into accepting the lower amount due to their current financial difficulties.
“Having spent many months negotiating with the Post Office and the government as to what would represent fair and full compensation for former subpostmasters who have had convictions overturned, we are somewhat surprised by this sudden announcement,” he said.
Hudgell warned that many of the victims will see this as another example of the “Post Office trying to control the narrative”.
He added: “The government has said these offers are optional, but my fear is that, due to the delays we have already faced, and the particular circumstances many subpostmasters face, some may feel pressured to accept this offer even though their claims are worth much more. In isolation £600,000 may sound like a lot of money, and it is. But in many cases it is nowhere near enough to represent what has been lost over the last two decades.”
The compensation process for victims of the scandal has become increasingly complicated and controversial. Sir Wyn Williams, the judge leading the statutory inquiry into the scandal, has described the situation as a “patchwork quilt of compensation schemes,” adding that: “Unfortunately, it is a patchwork quilt with some holes in it.”