Scottish Horizon victims exonerated en masse by new law

Following similar measures implemented across England and Wales in March, legislators north of the border have now implemented statutes to quash the convictions of all those prosecuted at a stroke

Scottish sub-postmasters who were wrongly convicted as part of the Post Office Horizon scandal have now been automatically exonerated.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Act, which was rushed through parliament last month, came into force on Friday, effectively overturning all convictions that relied on evidence from the Horizon system. Its passage into law follows equivalent legislation being implemented in England and Wales in March.

In 2020 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) wrote to 73 former sub-postmasters that COPFS had identified as potential victims of a miscarriage of justice, asking them to come forward to have their cases reopened. As of March, only 19 people had contacted the commission and just seven cases have been overturned using the judicial route.

The Scottish Government thus introduced legislation to exonerate everyone affected without them having to come forward.

Scottish justice secretary Angela Constance had initially wanted the UK government to extend its Horizon laws to Scotland but it refused on the grounds that justice is devolved and the court system in Scotland is completely independent.  There had been concerns when the legislation was first mooted that blanket exoneration does not have the same effect as overturning a conviction on appeal, as it does not publicly identify those who have been cleared.

Related content

Constance said that, now the law has passed, the government will work with the Post Office, COPFS and SCCRC to ensure all the people it covers are identified and their convictions are struck from the record.

“This legislation automatically exonerates sub-postmasters who were convicted of crimes of dishonesty that they did not commit due to the Post Office’s faulty Horizon IT system, meaning they are eligible to access the redress scheme,” she said. “Of course, no amount of compensation can fully mend the lives that were torn apart by this miscarriage of justice. I do hope, however, that this legislation goes some way to righting the terrible wrongs of the past. I will be writing to those affected to tell them their convictions have been quashed and ensuring court records are changed, so the victims of this scandal can have their good names restored as quickly as possible. They have already waited too long for justice.”

Earlier this year Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain KC stripped the Post Office of its status as a specialist reporting agency, meaning it will no longer be able to refer cases to COPFS for prosecution.

The Horizon system, which was purpose built for the Post Office by Fujitsu and rolled out from 1999, was intended to standardise accounting practices throughout locations around the UK.

However, there was an immediate increase in the number of sub-postmasters seeing unexplained accounting shortfalls when the system was put in place.  Hundreds were prosecuted for financial crimes, with the Post Office, which is wholly owned by the UK government, leading those prosecutions itself in England. In Scotland, where it was at the time a Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) specialist reporting agency, it referred cases to COPFS to prosecute on its behalf.

A version of this story originally appeared on PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood

Margaret Taylor

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *