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Scotland's Post Office Horizon law comes into force

A new law exonerating those affected by the Post Office Horizon scandal has come into effect | Alamy

Scotland's Post Office Horizon law comes into force

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

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Act, which was rushed through parliament last month, came into force today, effectively overturning all convictions that relied on evidence from the Horizon system.

The system, which was purpose built for the Post Office by Fujitsu and rolled out from 1999, was intended to standardise accounting practices across the entire network of UK post offices.

However, there was an immediate increase in the number of sub-postmasters seeing unexplained accounting shortfalls when the system was put in place. Rather than investigate whether there was an issue with Horizon itself, the Post Office accused the people forced to use it of crimes including theft and fraud.

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) speciaist reporting agency, it referred cases to COPFS to prosecute on its behalf. 

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 introduced legislation to exonerate everyone affected without them having to come forward after similar laws were brought forward in England and Wales, where the vast majority of the 900-plus Horizon convictions took place.

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. 

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," Constance 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.

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