In Review: Inside the Post Office Scandal
The Post Office scandal has dominated the British news over the past few weeks since the release of an ITV dramatisation of the scandal. With the government now rushing through legislation, more and more victims speaking out and the many twists and turns as the public inquiry continues, we’re looking at some talking points from the scandal.
Our Explainer gives you the facts (above), but below are three interesting takes on the scandal that we don’t want you to miss out on.
One of the articles looks at what the scandal tells you about how polarised British politics is right now, the second article lays out why the scandal is not surprising and finally, the third article looks at the reaction from some lawyers over the government plans to exonerate victims and why it makes them nervous.
Post Office: what the lack of action tells you about Britain’s polarised politics
The article highlights the injustice faced by more than 700 sub-postmasters and postmistresses in the Post Office scandal, where they were wrongly convicted of theft, false accounting, and fraud. Despite being a significant miscarriage of justice, the issue received little attention from political leaders until recently. The author attributes this lack of action to the victims’ cause not aligning with any political agenda or providing ammunition for existing political debates.
The piece points out two observations about modern party politics in Britain. Firstly, the recognition of an injustice alone is insufficient for political action, especially when the victims lack a clear constituency tied to any party or movement. Secondly, now that the scandal has gained attention, it is being exploited for political gain, becoming a tool in party warfare.
The article criticises the opportunistic use of the scandal by politicians, such as Conservative deputy chairman Lee Anderson, who targeted Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). It also highlights the delayed and seemingly reactive response from the current Post Office minister, Kevin Hollinrake, who only took decisive action after a television drama brought the issue to the forefront.
The author concludes by emphasising the frightening blind spot in today’s divisive democracy, where important issues may remain overlooked until they become politically expedient, illustrating a significant flaw in the functioning of the political system.
The Post Office scandal is shocking—but not surprising
The article calls the Post Office Horizon scandal the greatest miscarriage of justice in English legal history. It says the system failures that led to the miscarriage are all too familiar – and without strokes of “legal luck,” they might never have come to light.
The Horizon system, defended by the Post Office as “robust,” had significant flaws, and the legal system’s lack of robustness exacerbated the situation. The flawed IT procurement process, mismanagement, and a culture of secrecy in public sector IT projects contributed to the scandal.
The legal system’s presumption of the accuracy of computer records, coupled with the denial of access to internal error logs for defendants, made it impossible for a fair trial. The Post Office, known for its enthusiasm in bringing criminal prosecutions, conducted private prosecutions without external scrutiny, leading to about 900 convictions based on flawed Horizon data.
The article highlights a distinct feature of the scandal: the combination of a public body eager to prosecute and a legal system that facilitated criminal and civil actions, making challenges almost impossible. A rule of evidence in England and Wales presumed computer records to be accurate, making it challenging for defendants to contest charges.
The situation gained attention due to the efforts of bloggers, reporters, and a group of affected individuals who pursued legal action. High court judge Sir Peter Fraser played a crucial role in dismantling the Post Office’s case, leading to a settlement with claimants, though much of it went to legal costs.
Despite some justice being served, challenges persist. The government’s inquiry faces obstacles, and only a few convictions have been quashed. The Criminal Cases Review Commission is slow and legalistic in addressing wrongful convictions. A television dramatisation brought political attention, resulting in accelerated compensation payments and promises of legislative action.
The article calls for comprehensive reforms, including changes to evidence and disclosure rules, abolishing private prosecutions, independent prosecutors, and ensuring class actions effectively compensate victims. The lack of transparency and accountability in senior public sector positions remains a persistent issue.
No precedent: Why Commons approach to Post Office scandal has lawyers nervous
The article suggests that “legislation exonerating victims may be only way to achieve justice but it breaches fundamental principle.”
In response to the Post Office scandal, the UK government has announced plans to draft legislation to exonerate individuals convicted based on faulty Horizon computer evidence between 1999 and 2015.
This move has raised concerns as it breaches the constitutional separation of powers. There are 900 such cases, with only 95 overturned in the court of appeal. The legislation would overturn court decisions, setting a precedent that goes against the principle that only courts determine guilt. While some support the decision due to the gravity of the scandal, critics argue that it compromises the rule of law and should not become a precedent.
The announcement reflects the government’s recognition of the overwhelmed appeals process, which lacks the capacity to handle the large number of cases. The legislation is seen by some as a “lesser of two evils,” but concerns persist about potential injustices and the impact on constitutional principles.