It has been estimated that the government could pay as much £233 million for Horizon-related wrongful convictions as ministers promised former postmasters who have had their overturned an interim compensation payment of ‘up to £100,000 each’.
The Post Office is presently contacting postmasters and aims to make an offer within 28 days of receiving an application. ‘The suffering and distress these postmasters and their families have gone through cannot be overstated,’ said postal affairs Minister Paul Scully. ‘While nothing will make up for the years of pain they faced after this appalling injustice, I hope this initial step provides a measure of comfort. The Post Office has started to turn a corner in terms of dealing with its past mistakes – and this government will support them in doing so wherever possible.’ He promised that the Post Office would continue to work quickly towards final settlements to ensure these postmasters were ‘fairly compensated for the suffering and distress they have gone through’.
The government’s support comes on top of financial backing provided by a Post Office’s ‘historical shortfall’ scheme to compensate postmasters who had to cover shortfalls in their branch’s accounts caused by the Horizon IT system, but were not prosecuted. According to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, ministers will provide ‘strong oversight’ of the Post Office’s compensation arrangements. The Post Office is proposing alternative dispute resolution to quantify and resolve compensation claims.
The speed and scale of response contrasts with the Ministry of Justice’s refusal to compensate the victims of miscarriage of justice as a result of a 2014 change in the campensation scheme made by the Coalition government. Not a penny has been paid out in the last 12 months in compensation for the wrongly convicted under the normal miscarriage of justice compensation scheme which the postmasters have bypassed. In a response to a freedom of information request made by the Justice Gap, the MoJ revealed only a total of eight payouts have been made under the new arrangements which are presided over by the former high court judge Dame Linda Dobbs.
Chi Onwurah, shadow business minister, called the interim payout ‘long overdue, and a victory for the sub-postmasters who have been fighting tooth and nail to secure justice for those affected in this horrendous scandal’. ‘We will look closely at the compensation Government is proposing, because it remains baffling that the issue of compensation has been excluded from the Horizon Scandal Inquiry’s terms of reference. Labour will continue to press ministers to expand the inquiry’s remit.’
Neil Hudgell, of Hudgell Solicitors, which represents 49 people who have had their convictions overturned and dozens more who will be appealing, called the development ‘a cautiously positive step’. ‘We don’t want to see any legal gymnastics, game playing or delaying tactics. We want to see words very quickly translate into actions, and hopefully this is a positive start that will ease some of the pressures our clients are facing.’