The compensation pot for post office victims has been halved

The Post Office has halved the size of the compensation pot it has set aside to pay branch managers wrongly convicted of theft and false accounting.

The annual accounts show the company has now set aside £244 million, up from £487 million last year.

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 700 Post Office employees were convicted because flawed software gave the impression that money was missing from their sites.

There have been calls for all convictions to be quashed due to concerns over the small number of cases being annulled.

The Post Office Horizon scandal – named after the flawed accounting software – is one of the most widespread miscarriages of justice in Britain.

The convictions of hundreds of postmasters and postmistresses for false accounting and theft resulted in some people going to prison.

To date, 93 convictions have been overturned and only 27 of those have reached a “full and final settlement.”

Meanwhile, 54 cases have resulted in a conviction being upheld, people being denied permission to appeal or the person appealing withdrawing from the process, the Post Office said.

The independent Horizon Compensation Advisory Board has argued that the smaller number of convictions overturned shows that “the current approach is not working”.

In its latest accounts, the Post Office said the much lower compensation figure was “management’s last and best estimate” of the amount of future claims.

A spokesperson said the new amount “does not affect the availability of funding or the amount of money that can be paid out to victims”.

Before a victim can claim compensation, his conviction must first be quashed.

‘Absolutely petrified’

There are several theories as to why the number of appeals and cases being overturned is relatively low.

Neil Hudgell, a barrister who has represented most of the people whose convictions have been successfully overturned, said: ‘Firstly, unfortunately a number of people have died. Second, people have left the country.

“Third, and probably most often, people remain afraid to come forward. They are absolutely terrified of the Post Office and what has been done to them over the past 20 years.”

He said: “They are afraid of the legal process. We have consistently tried to manage those fears and have been successful in doing so when people came forward. However, it remains an ongoing battle.”

Professor Chris Hodges, chairman of the Horizon Compensation Advisory Board, said in a letter to the government that the reluctance to appeal was due to a “deep distrust of the authority”, the loss or destruction of evidence and problems with the compensation if no post office manager is awarded. a new process.

Nick Wallis, journalist and author of The Great Post Office Scandal, told the BBC’s Today program courts to “work on it on the basis that Horizon is essential to a prosecution”, seemingly ignoring the “massive failures” of the management of the post office. prosecutors.

“So unless you can prove the essence of Horizon in your prosecution, your conviction is unlikely to be overturned,” he added.

The Post Office prosecuted 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses between 1999 and 2015 – an average of almost one per week – based on information from a computer system called Horizon, which was used by branch managers for accounting.

Some went to prison after convictions for false accounting and theft. Many have been financially ruined and have described being shunned by their communities. Some have now died.

‘Convictions unsafe’

Last week, Prof Hodges said the convictions were “unsafe not only because they relied on Horizon’s computer evidence, but also because of the Post Office’s blatant systemic behavior in interviews and pursuit of prosecutions”.

“This led to guilty pleas and false confessions, driven by legal advice to victims to minimize punishment, and by the psychological pressure of dealing with an institution that systematically ignores truth and honesty,” he said.

His board therefore decided that the only viable approach was for all convictions caused by the Post Office during the Horizon period to be overturned so that the victims of the scandal could receive compensation.

Nick Read, the Post Office’s chief executive, said in his annual accounts that “any suggestion that the current Post Office is deliberately putting obstacles in the way of that outcome is completely misplaced”.

He said: “Against the processes and procedures we need to follow to both secure and deliver the necessary government funding for compensation payments, we have made good progress.

“We will not rest until justice is achieved and full and fair compensation is paid to all those so deeply affected by the events of the past.”

A spokesperson for the Post Office added that it “encourages people who believe they have been wrongly convicted for any reason to appeal”.

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