Ministers discuss alternative plan to exonerate Post Office Horizon victims | Post Office Horizon scandal

Ministers have held talks about an alternative to Rishi Sunak’s plan to exonerate those wrongfully convicted in the Post Office Horizon scandal.

No 10 insisted it was pressing ahead with the bill announced last month, which would immediately quash the convictions of hundreds of post office operators.

But this week the justice secretary, Alex Chalk, and business minister, Kevin Hollinrake, held discussions about an alternative put forward by the judiciary, under which the courts would overturn wrongful convictions, a process likely to take much longer.

Some senior lawyers have expressed concerns that quashing convictions by statute sets a dangerous precedent by allowing parliament and politicians to overturn the decisions of courts. Critics also say it lumps together innocent and guilty.

At least three MPs and one peer were briefed by ministers about the details of the alternative option. A fourth MP was told by a senior minister that the government was examining a new approach.

The alternative plan would bundle together wrongful convictions and overturn them through the court system, according to four people briefed on the details. They all said the new plan would require some more limited legislation.

The fact that the judiciary has proposed an alternative demonstrates the concern among its members.

But Downing Street said the alternative route would not deliver swift justice to post office operators. A government spokesperson said: “The prime minister was clear – we will introduce primary legislation that will exonerate those impacted by the historic Horizon scandal.”

A different government spokesperson said: “Ministers are absolutely committed to introducing new primary legislation to make sure that those prosecuted by the Post Office are swiftly exonerated.”

Government sources insisted that all ministers, including Chalk and Hollinrake, were proceeding with the original bill as announced. One source said: “Stakeholders put forward an alternative of how they felt this could go through the courts. It was appropriate that this was discussed but it was never a viable option for ministers. We have always been very clear that the only way forward is blanket exoneration for Post Office cases.”

Under longstanding convention, members of the judiciary do not comment on government legislation. However, the lady chief justice, Dame Sue Carr, has implied that the judiciary is concerned about the proposals. Asked at a press conference on 6 February for her view on clearing people by statute rather than through the courts, Carr said it is “for the courts to make judicial decisions”.

Carr said she was waiting to see the published legislation but warned: “I hope you’ve seen enough of me already to know that if I have to speak out, I will … It is for the courts to make judicial decisions. These are court-ordered convictions, and if there comes a point in time when the rule of law has to be confronted in this context, then I will confront it.”

She told the justice select committee on 16 January that any suggestion the courts couldn’t cope with the number of convictions that needed to be overturned “is simply not factually correct” and that “any suggestion the judiciary has given the proposed legislation the green light is simply not true”.

Sunak announced at prime minister’s questions on 10 January that ministers would introduce an emergency bill to clear the names of hundreds of people wrongly convicted in the Post Office scandal.

He announced the plan at a time when there was heavy pressure on the government to act after media reports and an ITV drama increased public awareness of the scandal.

The nature of the bill is unprecedented but ministers have argued it is the right approach to quickly redress one of the biggest miscarriages of justice the UK has seen.

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted hundreds of post office operators after a faulty computer system, Horizon, made it look as if money was missing. Some went to prison after convictions for false accounting and theft, while many were financially ruined. There have been more than 900 convictions linked to the scandal over 16 years, with only about 100 overturned so far.

The attorney general’s office refused to comment on what legal advice it had received about the government’s proposed legislation.

David Davis, the former cabinet minister who has been campaigning on this issue, told the Sunday Telegraph last month that instead of doing it by statute the government should bring a handful of former supreme court judges out of retirement to exonerate all wrongly convicted post office operators within three months.

Davis urged ministers not to “abandon due process” and said: “A failure to follow proper processes is what has got us into this situation.”

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