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The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill, Bill 181 of 2023-24, was introduced on 13 March 2024. 

Note: after this briefing was published, the Government announced that the bill would be extended to Northern Ireland – see Post Office Offences Bill to be extended to Northern Ireland, 22 April 2024 

The Horizon scandal

The Post Office Horizon IT scandal has been described as the one of UK’s most widespread miscarriages of justice.

A number of postmasters, who run individual post office branches, experienced problems with the Horizon Post Office computer system, which was piloted from 1996 and rolled out in 2000. Errors in the system showed false shortfalls on the accounts of postmasters, which the Post Office then demanded they cover or saw them face suspension and prosecution. This led to bankruptcies, health problems, family breakdowns and suicides.

Hundreds of people were convicted using evidence from the Horizon system.

The ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, screened in early January 2024, drew more attention to the scandal.

The Bill

The Prime Minister announced legislation on 10 January 2024 to overturn convictions “to make sure that those convicted as a result of the Horizon scandal are swiftly exonerated and compensated”.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill would automatically quash convictions for specified offences of dishonesty (including false accounting, fraud and theft) that were prosecuted by the Post Office or the Crown Prosecution Service. Convictions that have already been considered by the Court of Appeal would be excluded from the Bill.

The Secretary of State would have a duty to identify individuals whose convictions have been quashed by the Bill, and to notify them (or another party on their behalf) that their conviction has been quashed. The convicting court would be required to replace the record of conviction with a record that the conviction has been quashed by the Bill. 

The Bill itself does not provide for compensation. However, the government has announced plans to establish a new Horizon Convictions Redress Scheme that will make compensation payments to those who have had their convictions quashed by the Bill. Unlike the current scheme for those who have had their convictions overturned, which is run by the Post Office, this will be run by the government.

The Bill was introduced on 13 March 2024, with its second reading due on 20 March.

Politicians from various parties have condemned the scandal and welcomed the Bill.

Constitutional questions

Using primary legislation to overturn criminal convictions is unprecedented. The approach taken in the Bill has led to concerns about constitutional propriety.

It has been argued that it is for the courts to make judicial decisions, and that it is undesirable to set a precedent for Parliament to overturn court decisions.

However, others content that the Bill addresses an extraordinary situation and that it is unlikely to set a precedent. For example, the Lord Chancellor, Alex Chalk, told the Financial Times that the Bill was to “avoid what would be an even greater injustice”.

Just England and Wales

The Bill would extend to England and Wales. Both the Scottish Government and Northern Ireland Executive have expressed disappointment that the Bill has not been extended to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Postal services Minister Kevin Hollinrake has said that as justice is devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland then it ought to be for their respective administrations to legislate.

Note: after this briefing was published, the Government announced that the bill would be extended to Northern Ireland – see Post Office Offences Bill to be extended to Northern Ireland, 22 April 2024 

Further information

The full briefing, available from this page, provides further information and analysis.

Help for Members of Parliament and their staff

In addition to writing and updating published papers as bills go through Parliament, the House of Commons Library can assist Members of Parliament and their staff with individual enquiries about bills, particularly on the policy background.

The Public Bill Office (PBO) supports public bill committees. The staff working in the PBO can advise Members of Parliament on tabling amendments to bills.

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