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New Bill to exonerate up to 300 Scottish Post Office workers convicted in Horizon scandal

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Published Time: 14.05.2024 - 17:40:35 Modified Time: 14.05.2024 - 17:40:35

Angela Constance unveils measure to give victims ‘justice and redress as swiftly as possible’ fiorigianluigi/iStockphoto Up to 300 Post Office workers caught up in the Horizon scandal in Scotland will have their convictions quashed by legislation that has finally been tabled by SNP ministers

Angela Constance unveils measure to give victims ‘justice and redress as swiftly as possible’

: fiorigianluigi/iStockphoto

Up to 300 Post Office workers caught up in the Horizon scandal in Scotland will have their convictions quashed by legislation that has finally been tabled by SNP ministers.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill will mean “relevant” convictions are automatically quashed on the day the legislation comes into force, by the autumn.

It is to be rushed through Parliament “to allow justice and redress to be delivered to victims as swiftly as possible”. Those exonerated will then be able to access the UK government compensation scheme.

Documents published alongside the Bill estimated that around 200 convictions will be quashed, double the previous Crown Office figure of 100.

However, they said the total could be as high as 300, noting there was a “significant degree of uncertainty” around how many convictions will meet the legislation’s five criteria.

Parity with England

Angela Constance, the SNP Justice Secretary, unveiled the Bill and complained that Scotland was not included in the Westminster legislation covering the rest of the UK.

Unlike south of the border, where the Post Office has the power to bring its own prosecutions, the Crown Office brought all the cases against Scottish postmasters. Control over Scotland’s separate legal system is devolved to Holyrood.

Ms Constance said the Scottish Bill “mirrors” its UK counterpart “to ensure parity for affected sub-postmasters in Scotland with those” south of the border and access to the compensation scheme.

But she warned that MSPs could not pass the legislation until the UK version had been approved, so that any amendments to the latter during its passage at Westminster could be taken into consideration.

The UK Bill is expected to be passed in the summer and Holyrood’s earlier holiday dates mean that MSPs may not approve the Scottish version until they return from their break in September.

‘Unprecedented step’

Ms Constance said: “The scale of the scandal and the length of time that the victims have waited for justice means we are taking an unprecedented step of introducing legislation to right this terrible wrong and asking Parliament for it to be processed as an emergency Bill.

“The Scottish Government will not do anything to jeopardise equality and parity for victims, so the final stage of the Bill cannot be considered in the Scottish Parliament until after the UK legislation has been passed.”

After discussions with the Crown Office, the Bill’s financial memorandum estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 cases will need to be considered to see whether they meet the five conditions for a conviction to be quashed.

The criteria are that the offence must have been committed between Sept 23 1996 and Dec 31 2018. It must have been “embezzlement, fraud, theft, uttering or an ancillary offence”.

The convicted people must have been “carrying on a Post Office business” and their offence must be connected to that work.

Finally, at the time of the alleged offence, the Horizon system must have been used for the “purposes of that Post Office business”.

Legislative consent motion

SNP ministers had wanted to use a legislative consent motion, a device giving Westminster permission to extend to Scotland a law exonerating victims south of the border.

But the UK Government warned this would be extremely difficult thanks to the legal complexities, and decided that a separate Bill would have to be introduced at Holyrood.

This is reflected in the Scottish legislation, with several changes made from the UK version to take account of different offences and legal procedures that apply north of the border.

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