Post Office Horizon scandal: How does Scottish law differ to England? How will victims be cleared?

The Scottish Parliament may need to be recalled in the summer recess to finalise legislation to exonerate sub-postmasters convicted of crimes in relation to the Horizon IT system

The Scottish Government introduced legislation on Tuesday to tackle injustices caused by the Horizon Post Office scandal.

The purpose of the legislation is to overturn convictions relating to the period when the Post Office was using the Horizon IT system. Post Office workers across the UK were wrongly convicted of crimes such as fraud and embezzlement due to the faulty IT system horizon. This included many victims in Scotland.

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Hundreds of victims in other parts of the UK had convictions quashed in March, when Westminster introduced a blanket exoneration. Then first minister Humza Yousaf criticised the UK government’s "outrageous" decision at the time not to extend the law to Scotland. 

Now the Scottish Government is introducing similar legislation to deal with convictions north of the Border, which will be quashed automatically and without need for further intervention. 

The Scottish Government estimates the legislation could lead to 200 convictions being quashed. 

What are the aims of the Scottish legislation?

A key aim of the legislation is to allow those who have convictions quashed to access financial redress through UK government/Post Office compensation schemes. It is expected victims will be eligible for a £600,000 pay-out from the UK government. 

What offences does the legislation cover?

The legislation will only cover specific offences, such as all offences relating to dishonesty which were prosecuted in Horizon-linked cases.

An offence will be covered by the legislation if it is alleged to have been committed between September 23, 1996, when the Horizon system was introduced, and December 31, 2018, when the early version of the Horizon IT system was replaced.

Upon a conviction being quashed, the convicting court will be obliged to update the record and remove the conviction.

What have ministers said about the legislation?

UK Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake previously said: “It remains the UK government’s view that it’s more appropriate for the Scottish Government to bring forward proposals to address prosecutions on this matter in Scotland, and for those to be scrutinised by the Scottish Parliament.”

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Mr Hollinrake noted Scotland was a “historically separate legal jurisdiction”.

How does Scotland differ from England on prosecutions?

Prosecutions in England and Wales were carried by the Post Office itself, unlike in Scotland where they were carried out by the Crown Office.

The Post Office was able to use the general legal right to bring a private prosecution in England and Wales, but the right to do so in Scotland is more restricted. 

The Crown Office was responsible for bringing Horizon cases in Scotland, but information which led to convictions was provided by the Post Office. 

In response to the failures involved in the Horizon Scandal, the Post Office was recently stripped of the ability to investigate and report crimes directly to the Crown in Scotland. It must now report allegations of criminal activity to Police Scotland to be investigated. 

Speaking to MSPs on Thursday last week, Lord Advocate Dorothy Bain said: “I can confirm that because of its fundamental and sustained failures in connection with Horizon cases in Scotland, I have decided that Post Office Limited is not fit to be a specialist reporting agency.”

Why there could be delays with the Scottish legislation?

Justice secretary Angela Constance said the Scottish Bill, which is being treated as an emergency at Holyrood, needs to be in place as soon as possible after the UK legislation is passed.

MSPs debated stage One of the Post Office (Horizon System) Offences (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday before moving to stage two on Thursday.

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Writing to Holyrood’s justice committee, Ms Constance said she wanted to ensure parity of treatment for sub-postmasters north of the border – ensuring they can access the UK Government’s redress scheme.

Ms Constance said the Scottish Parliament should only conclude the final part of its stage three debate after any final changes to the UK legislation became clear.

In her letter, Ms Constance said: “The UK legislation is proceeding through Westminster, but we do not yet have the final timetable for that and amendments can still be made to the Bill in the House of Commons and Lords.” And she added: “I very much hope the passage of the UK Bill can be before the Scottish Parliament breaks for recess at the end of June.”



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