Subpostmasters scandal: 'Mistrust' means almost 600 victims yet to apply to overturn convictions

Almost 600 victims of the sub-postmasters scandal are yet to start the process of overturning their unsafe convictions, a group of cross-party MPs has warned.

The victims were wrongly accused of theft and fraud as a result of accounting problems that were actually due to a faulty IT system called Horizon.

A Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee report investigating the issue of compensation payments to affected subpostmasters said it was “deeply concerned” that of the 736 people prosecuted in this manner by the Post Office between 2000 and 2014, 576 are yet to come forward despite contact attempts being made.

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The committee said that given this was seemingly being driven by widespread mistrust of the Post Office and Government and has recommended an independent and trusted intermediary body is established to provide emotional and practical support.

Former post office worker Janet Skinner (centre) had her conviction overturned last year - but hundreds of other victims are yet to come forward, MPs have warned.

During an evidence session to the committee last month, BEIS Minister Paul Scully admitted: “There is a mistrust in this entire process, not just with the Post Office but with the Government and with everybody, because they have had 20 years of absolute hell.”

The committee’s report said: “Both types of support are important considering the distress of being wrongly convicted and the complexity of preparing cases for litigation. There is some urgency in addressing this issue because of the age profile of many of the victims.”

Of the 160 people to approach the Post Office to begin the process of overturning convictions, only 72 have had their convictions quashed to date. Of those 66 have requested interim compensation payments of £100,000 ahead of a final payment.

The report also highlighted parallel concerns about the treatment of a group of 555 subpostmasters who successfully challenged the Post Office over its Horizon IT system in the High Court in 2019 - paving the way for the eventual admissions that convictions needed to be quashed.

While the Government has since opened a fund to compensate more than 700 wrongfully convicted SPMs, the original 555 were not able to claim from this because of their settlement with the Post Office, and say they are out of pocket due to legal costs.

The case saw the Post Office agreed to pay £57.75m in compensation but £46m had to be used to pay the group’s legal costs - leaving around £20,000 for each victim when many would have been due around £700,000 in damages.

The committee said part of the reason the legal costs were so high is because the Post Office only settled the case once Horizon had proved to be defective and some of the organisation’s witnesses were “severely criticised by the judge”.

Committee chair Darren Jones said: “The Post Office-Horizon scandal is one of the largest miscarriages of justice in British history, subjecting sub-postmasters, postal workers and their families to the most appalling hardship.

“It is clearly entirely unacceptable that the group of 555 victims who first brought this scandal successfully to court are being left in a worse position than those who are being compensated thanks to their action.”

Mr Jones said the Government should also consider “the ability for the families of victims who have died to be able to have access to compensation”.

“It is certainly my personal view that the estates should be able to access the scheme as well,” he added.

In December, the Government came forward with a £685.6 million support package to foot the bill for compensation, but the committee’s interim report called for clarity about whether this funding would be available to the 555 former SPMs who won the civil case.

The report said the funding the Government had provided was “far in excess of the costs incurred so far”, with estimated payouts so far totalling £258 million.

However, Mr Jones said that payments of “around the billion pound mark” could be made if the Chancellor signed off on a cheque to put every victim of the scandal “back in the position they should have been but for the fact that the Post Office prosecuted them”.

To complicate matters, the Labour MP said there was no estimate of the overall number of SPMs affected by faults in Horizon, as some were not taken to court but were made to pay back the Post Office from their own pockets with very little record keeping of how much was paid, or by who.

He added that ministers “ought to think about” a “counterclaim against Fujitsu”, which was responsible for the Horizon system, to recover costs incurred by the Post Office - which is wholly owned by the Government.

As well as recommending that all SPMs are fully compensated, the BEIS committee report recommends the Government provides regular updates when compensation is refused for sub-postmasters who have had their convictions overturned, the reasons for this and if subsequent compensation is sought and awarded.

It also calls for the Government to provide monthly updates on the number of interim payments made to SPMs through its Historic Settlement Scheme.

Former High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams began hearing evidence for the statutory inquiry into the scandal on Monday.

Pledge to address compensation issue

The Government has pledged to resolve Horizon-related issues “fairly and quickly” - including for the 555 High Court litigants.

A BEIS spokesperson said: “The Horizon scandal has had a devastating impact on postmasters and their families, with many losing their livelihoods or being wrongly convicted for crimes they didn’t commit.

“That is why we have set up a statutory inquiry to set out exactly what went wrong, and we are providing financial support for compensation. We are eager to see all Horizon-related issues resolved fairly and quickly, including for the 555, who played a crucial role in bringing this scandal to light.”

BEIS Minister Paul Scully has said the issue of further potential compensation for postmasters who received compensation through the Group Litigation Order with the Post Office in 2019 is “by far and away the most pressing issue in my list of responsibilities as a Minister”.

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