Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 4:21 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Llafur 4:21, 13 Mai 2024

My Lords, the heroes of this story are Alan Bates and the sub-postmasters. Having been wrongly convicted, and in order to establish their innocence, they brought a piece of incredibly expensive civil litigation. This was fought all the way by the Post Office. As Sir Wyn Williams will tell us, there are signs that it deliberately suppressed evidence even then. Alan Bates won in front of a judge in the civil courts. That began the exoneration process.

As everyone else in the House has done, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, and Mr Kevan Jones. They pursued a terribly unfashionable cause for literally decades, and never gave up on it when the whole establishment was against them, including all the senior Post Office executives and its board, senior civil servants, and Ministers who did not pay enough attention. There was absolutely nothing in it for them, but they persisted. They make one admire politicians and they shame most of the rest of us.

I welcome and support the Bill. I actively support the solution adopted by the Government. I do not support the solution proposed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon. I say that with enormous trepidation because he is someone whom I greatly admire. His judgment is good. He took the courts through the pandemic, making good legal and wider judgments throughout. With the greatest respect to him, I think he is wrong in relation to this case.

The miscarriages of justice span a period of 22 years. The number of people wrongly convicted of serious offences and who had their lives comprehensively ruined is not known. Maybe it was 700, maybe 900. The number of people who went to jail is not known. Maybe it was 230, maybe more. The period of time in which the miscarriages lasted, the number of people affected and the lack of reliable information is quite unprecedented. The destruction of the lives and livelihoods of the sub-postmasters and their families is unspeakable. The responsibility for this lies first and foremost with the Post Office, which pursued and prosecuted them on a false basis, and Fujitsu, which knew the truth and colluded in its suppression.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has said, a significant number—I do not know how many; I am not sure about that figure of 90%—of the convictions were on guilty pleas, often to a charge of false accounting.. Do not be comforted by that. No doubt those guilty pleas were obtained by a combination of what lawyers would have advised the defendants was the irrefutable evidence of the Horizon system. It was irrefutable not because of some principle of law but because there was simply no evidence to undermine that system—because the Post Office had suppressed such evidence. There was also the prospect of the Post Office not pursuing more serious charges if they pleaded guilty to the lesser charge—as it was presented—of false accounting.

The Bill addresses only one aspect of the scandal: how to extinguish the wrongful convictions. In many of the cases, as everyone who has spoken in this debate has identified, much of the underlying written and other material has been lost, partly because the Post Office has destroyed it and partly because the defendants want nothing more to do with what was a terrible period in their lives.

As far as the process of appealing successfully against the convictions is concerned, there have been an unspecified number of appeals against conviction in magistrates’ courts, which have generally been heard in Southwark Crown Court. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett of Maldon, has said, in all those appeals the Post Office called no evidence and in consequence the appeals, being by way of rehearing, were automatically allowed.

In relation to the appeals from the Crown Court, up to the end of January 106 appeals were completed in the Court of Appeal, of which 70 were allowed, 26 were withdrawn by the appellant sub-postmaster upon sight of the Post Office’s response, and seven were dismissed. I appreciate that that leaves three cases unaccounted for, which I cannot explain but which is symptomatic of the lack of reliable information about the scale and extent of the problem. The Court of Appeal, as the noble and learned Lord said, accepted the unreliability of the Horizon system. Other reasons have come to light, as he said, that should justify appeals, including and in particular the withholding of exonerating material by the Post Office in the prosecutions.

As the noble and learned Lord said, there are already well-established processes for setting aside wrongful convictions in our system. His proposal is that we would let the existing processes take their course with modifications, some of them no doubt required by primary legislation. In my view, that has a number of problems. First, it would not be possible to identify all the cases, simply because there are not the records. Many innocent sub-postmasters would not connect with the process, whether or not they wanted to, and as a result would not be exonerated.

Secondly, it would take a long time. Some 50% at least of the English cases would have to be dealt with in the Court of Appeal. I have absolutely no doubt that the Criminal Division of the Court of Appeal would do its bit as quickly as reasonably possible, but time would be required to identify the cases, to prepare the appeal material, to undertake some form of investigation on the part of the prosecution, and then to list those appeals.

Thirdly, as the noble Lord, Lord Arbuthnot of Edrom, said, a significant number of sub-postmasters would refuse to participate because of their lack of faith in the system. The current system, as everyone has said, does not allow for an unwilling defendant, unless they lack capacity, to have their case referred to the Court of Appeal against their wishes.

Fourthly, it will be for the Post Office—or the Crown Prosecution Service if it replaces the Post Office as the prosecuting authority—to determine which of the appeals to contest. The evidence that Sir Wyn Williams is hearing in the inquiry suggests that little faith can be placed in the Post Office properly performing any duty placed on it in connection with Horizon. No doubt the obligations of the prosecutor can be passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, at least in England, but that would create yet further delay.

As the noble and learned Lord has said, the Lord Chancellor could be given power to refer the cases of unwilling postmasters to the Court of Appeal. There could be a presumption that the defendant was innocent unless the prosecution could actively convince the Court that the convictions were safe. None of that would obviate the need for investigation within, if not by, the prosecution at a time when the material is limited, and it would not prevent some appeals being resisted on the basis of which documents had survived. The Court of Appeal could no doubt hear cases en bloc of, say, 50 or 60 cases at a time and list them within weeks of the court being told they were ready.

All that is possible, but it would be bending our justice system out of its normal shape. Our justice system prides itself, rightly, on providing a fair and reliable system of adjudication, where above everything it decides cases on the evidence before it in accordance with settled principles of law. The courts have the key role of deciding disputes between private individuals and between the state and private individuals, without fear, favour or interference of any sort—particularly from the state. As the Executive control the legislature in our system, they can interfere with court processes by legislation. If unfavourable court decisions were overturned by legislation, the rule of law would be undermined—not where the legislation was to change the law, but where it was to overturn an inconvenient finding of fact. That is the argument of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Burnett.

There are three alternatives. First, you could legislate to exonerate in a Bill like this. Secondly, you could use a royal pardon. Thirdly, you could adapt the current system of appeals to allow for mass exoneration by the courts. A royal pardon is inappropriate. It involves pardoning somebody for committing a crime, maybe because modern practice would not regard the act a crime. The sub-postmasters did not commit crimes. They should not have pardons; they should have exoneration.

Of the other two routes, I favour legislation like this, because it best does justice, which is the best protection for the rule of law. It is no criticism of the courts. It involves neither a slur on the judges nor the setting of a precedent which undermines the rule of law to say that the exceptional facts of this case cry out for legislation and not appeals.

This legislation identifies the group—sub-postmasters convicted in connection with their Post Office work while the Horizon system operated—and automatically and immediately exonerates them. A court process will take time. It will be much quicker than normal, but for many it will take years and not months. The court process will miss people because of the bad record keeping. If it is exoneration by court, when those missed emerge, as many will, they will not have been exonerated. Then they will have to go through a court process, when all the urgency has gone, to petition for acquittal.

The court process will produce anomalies and inconsistencies, bred very often by the uneven loss of documents and the unreliability of the Post Office. For those postmasters challenged to establish their innocence, wherever the burden lies in the court process, it is difficult to imagine that they would have faith in the conduct of such a prosecution. The legislature should take responsibility for putting this mess right, and not the courts.

What precedent does this Bill set? I completely accept what the noble and learned Lord said; it does set a precedent. It is a precedent that, where the court system, because of the exceptional nature of the miscarriage of justice, cannot effectively right the wrong, intervention by the legislature is appropriate. I cannot imagine this precedent ever being repeated. The Irish terrorist cases in the 1970s and 1980s demeaned and besmirched our court system, but they were put right by a process of appeals. The court system was able to remedy it, and to have intervened by legislation there would have been hugely undermining. The hallmarks of this exception are, first, the time it has lasted—24 years. Secondly, the need to use bulk hearings suggests that the courts cannot deal with it in a normal manner. Thirdly, justice must come soon. Fourthly, only legislation provides consistency and clarity.

Separation of powers is vital to the rule of law. The courts must be copper-bottomed, protected from interference by the legislature and the Executive. In a constitution based on parliamentary sovereignty, that separation also involves Parliament and the Executive providing necessary support for the courts in funding and in judicial appointments. It involves support in the face of public pressure, not legislating in any way that undermines the rule of law, and—very exceptionally—legislating where justice cannot be done without it.

This legislation is supportive and not undermining, so I support it in principle. I have a number of points on the detail: first is the decision to exclude from exoneration those cases which have already been dealt with by the Court of Appeal. I am strongly against that; I support the noble Lords, Lord Arbuthnot and Lord Browne, in saying that everybody should be exonerated. The fact that someone has got to the Court of Appeal is not a reason for not exonerating them. Those postmasters who got to the Court of Appeal almost certainly had the strongest cases because they got through; they should not be left out in the cold.

Secondly, I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the position in Scotland. If the Scottish Parliament is willing for one Bill to do it, it should be done by one Bill. Thirdly, I would like to hear why the DWP cases are being separated from everyone else. Maybe this House could contribute to this Bill by dealing with the Court of Appeal cases and the DWP cases and streamlining the position with Scotland.