Partner Richard Cannon comments on the UK government’s announcement of emergency legislation to quash the convictions of hundreds of sub-postmasters who had been wrongfully convicted in the Horizon IT scandal.

Richard’s comments were published in City A.M, 13 January 2024, Law360, 10 January 2024, The Daily Mail, 10 January 2024 and  This Is Money, 10 January 2024.

“Typically, a conviction is quashed if the Court of Appeal deems the conviction unsafe. This can include mistakes or misconduct during the trial, disclosure issues or on the basis of fresh evidence. The Criminal Cases Review Commission may also refer a conviction to the Court of Appeal for review if it considers there has been a potential miscarriage of justice.

“The convictions of the postmasters could, therefore, be overturned if it is found that they had been wrongfully convicted on the basis of evidence related to the faulty Horizon software.

“With many victims having already suffered financially, faced prison sentences or – in some cases- taken their lives, nothing can repair the damage done as a result of this scandal. There is a compensation scheme available for postmasters who were wrongly convicted, but many have still not received financial redress and have complained the process is slow.

“Existing legislation states that victims are entitled to compensation in cases where it is beyond reasonable doubt that there has been a miscarriage of justice. Once quashed, a conviction is removed from a person’s criminal record.

“With this case, it is also interesting to note that it is not necessarily a question of innocence as, on the face of it, these are ‘phantom’ crimes. The alleged discrepancies appear to never have existed.”

“Where cases are usually considered by the Court of Appeal on an individual basis, given the hundreds of victims involved in the Post Office scandal this could be a lengthy, expensive and complex process. Instead, it has been proposed blanket legislation could be imposed to combine their cases, fast-track the process and quash all convictions en masse.

“However, quashing convictions through legislation is a constitutional issue and could be deemed as Parliamentary interference in the independent judicial process. Should blanket legislation be passed, therefore, it is vital that safeguards are established to prevent Parliamentary backdoors into the court system of England and Wales and allow for a clear separation between the powers of the courts and the state.

“It is not the role of Parliament to pass legislation to unwind convictions of the court and, while an exceptional case, rushed legislation could set an uncomfortable precedent for future cases.”

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