A video grab from footage broadcast by the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) shows Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during the first Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) session of the year at the House of Commons, in London, on January 10, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

LONDON: The UK government announced on Wednesday it will unilaterally quash the wrongful theft convictions of hundreds of self-employed Post Office branch managers targeted due to faulty software, and offer them immediate compensation.

Announcing the highly unusual decision to pass legislation exonerating and compensating the subpostmasters, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he wanted to help right “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history”.

It follows renewed focus on a scandal stretching back two decades, which saw hundreds of subpostmasters wrongly convicted of theft because of the glitch in Fujitsu’s then-new “Horizon” accounting software.

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Others were pursued in civil court and faced fines and huge legal bills.

“Today I can announce that we will introduce new primary legislation to make sure that those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal are swiftly exonerated and compensated,” Sunak told parliament.

“People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolute-ly no fault of their own.

“The victims must get justice and compensation.”

‘Exceptional step’

Alongside the exonerations for those criminally convicted in England and Wales, the government will offer £600,000 ($764,000) per head in upfront compensation or the opportunity for claims to be individually assessed.

Meanwhile, those who are part of a group civil litigation over the issue will now qualify for a new upfront payment of £75,000.

The government said it has in recent years paid almost £150 million in compensation to over 2,500 total victims em-broiled in the scandal.

“We recognise this is an exceptional step. But these are exceptional circumstances,” business minister Kevin Hollinrake told lawmakers.

Acknowledging the compensation process could not become another protracted “administrative exercise” for the victims, he said postmasters would simply be asked to sign a statement swearing they did not commit the crimes they were accused of.

Anyone subsequently found to have been untruthful risked potential prosecution for fraud, he noted.

“I do not pretend... this is a foolproof device, but it is a proportionate one which respects the ordeal which these people have already suffered,” Hollinrake added.

“It means that an honest postmaster will have his or her conviction overturned, and just by signing one document can secure compensation.”

Numerous lives were ruined by the false accusations, which started in the early 2000s. Some Post Office branch managers were jailed, went bankrupt, losing their homes and their health.

Four people took their own lives and dozens of those so far exonerated died without ever seeing their names cleared.

‘Move it on’

The High Court in 2019 ruled that it had been computer errors, not criminality, that had been behind the missing mon-ey.

A new television drama telling the story of their ordeal at the hands of their own employer has generated a fresh wave of sympathy for the victims - and pressure on the government to rectify the situation.

On Tuesday, the former boss of the Post Office Paula Vennells said she would return a royal honour received from Queen Elizabeth II, as public anger mounts.

Postmasters welcomed Wednesday’s move by the government.

“This is what we’ve been calling for, the quashing of all convictions, the government to legislate for it, to move it on,” Tim Brentnall, who ran a Post Office in Wales, told the BBC.

His conviction - which led to an 18-month suspended sentence and 200 hours of community service - over a £22,000 shortfall was eventually overturned in 2021.

“It has been two and-a-half years since my conviction was quashed and nothing has really happened for me.”