Lawyers representing former subpostmasters striving to overturn convictions have said they will continue with the usual appeals process despite the government’s promise to legislate to overturn about 900 convictions.
To date, about 100 former subpostmasters have seen wrongful convictions for crimes of dishonesty overturned because they were based on data from the controversial Horizon system.
In what is known as the Post Office Horizon scandal, around 900 people were convicted of crimes such as theft and false accounting after unexplained accounting shortfalls in their branch accounts. The computer system has been proved to be error prone, making convictions based on its data potentially unsafe.
Following the airing of a dramatisation of the treatment of subpostmasters on ITV, public anger has pushed the government into action, with legislation now planned to overturn all remaining convictions based on Horizon evidence in a single block.
But two lawyers at the centre of subpostmaster appeals and claims for compensation have said that, despite prime minister Rish Sunak’s announcement, nothing has yet changed and that they will carry on with normal appeals process.
David Enright, a lawyer at Howe & Co solicitors which represents victims of the scandal, told Computer Weekly that it is not even certain the legislation will be passed and there is currently no alternative to carrying on with the long and complicated appeals process. “There is nothing out there that can shortcut this process,” he said.
He cast some doubt on whether passing the legislation is guaranteed. “We are deeply concerned that the prime minister’s statement is just words and no deeds will follow. The head of the judiciary has made it clear that she has not been consulted and, as a result, we see no sign that the judiciary will agree with the proposals of the prime minister.”
Enright confirmed that the company has been approached by new potential claimants.
Neil Hudgell, solicitor at Hudgell Solicitors, agreed that that nothing has changed: “We are going to carry on as normal because we do not know what will happen.”
He said a lot of people are now coming forward, adding: “People know they are not the criminals that they have been labelled as, and that they were victims of a huge miscarriage of justice. Before they feared people would, and indeed did, take a ‘no smoke without fire’ attitude towards their cause.
“A number of people who have only now come forward have told us that, despite being contacted by the Post Office about being able to challenge their convictions, they were still reluctant as they didn’t trust the legal system.
“The government’s recent pledge to overturn all convictions by subpostmasters signing a statement of truth as to their innocence has helped bring more people forward, which is obviously a good thing, although much is still to be worked through when details of how that will happen are published.”
Since the airing of ITV’s Mr Bates vs The Post Office drama and documentary, 52 people have contacted Hudgell’s requesting guidance on having their convictions overturned. In total, 443 people have approached the company requesting support, including 270 seeking advice on compensation for loses in their branches that they suspect were caused by Horizon errors.
Computer Weekly first exposed the scandal in 2009, revealing the stories of seven subpostmansters and the problems they suffered as a result of the Horizon system (see timeline of all articles below).
Also read: What you need to know about the Horizon scandal.
Watch: ITV’s Post Office scandal documentary, Mr Bates vs The Post Office: The real story.