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Bishop of Manchester warns of risk to rule of law in Government’s Post Office Horizon Bill

15 May 2024

istock

THE Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, has warned that the proposed legislation — which he supports — to clear the names of the victims of the Post Office scandal carries the risk of unforeseen consequences for the rule of law in the UK.

The Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill is under scrutiny in Parliament, while the Post Office Horizon IT Inquiry, currently in its sixth week, continues to take evidence. The Revd Paula Vennells, the former group chief executive officer of Post Office Ltd, is expected to give evidence next week.

Speaking in the House of Lords during the Second Reading of the Bill on Monday, Dr Walker said that he hoped that the Bill would swiftly pass into law. “The many victims of this long-running scandal and injustice must now benefit without further undue delay,” he said.

Parliament, however, was not the usual route for the overturning of wrongful convictions, he said. “We need to tread very carefully when acting in ways that move us on to territory more normally occupied by the courts and the judiciary. That is particularly important in Britain, because we give such huge weight to precedent.”

While Lord Offord of Garvel, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Business and Trade, who moved the Bill, had assured peers that this should not be viewed as the setting of a precedent, Dr Walker argued that this unusual approach needed careful consideration.

“What one government do today, no matter how warily, may be drawn on by future governments in ways that stretch the original intentions well beyond breaking point,” he said. “Our best defence against that — perhaps our only defence — is to set down very clear principles, not merely general assertions, at the outset.”

Dr Walker pointed peers to the United States, and warned: “It is not beyond imagination that far-Right movements in Europe, notorious for combining political organisation with street violence, might, should they gain a say in government, seek to overthrow their criminal associates’ convictions.”

He continued: “The question is how we in Britain safeguard the rule of law for the long term, while ensuring that the Post Office victims are speedily exonerated.”

There were four simple criteria that set this particular case apart, Dr Walker suggested.

First, the emergence of new evidence: “For me, this is the most compelling argument for the course of action we are taking today. Our justice system is based solidly on evidence, and where fresh and powerful evidence emerges, we need to be able to take it into account in a timely and effective way.”

Second, the risk that someone who had in fact stolen money might go free: “The principle that it is better that a guilty person go free than an innocent one be convicted lies at the root of our British justice system,” Dr Walker said. “It is enshrined in the requirement that guilt be proven beyond reasonable doubt — yet it goes back much further, to the book of Genesis.”

Third, it was important that the case was “well clear of partisan political territory”, he said. “Were any major grouping in your Lordships’ House to feel that the Bill contained political bias in any direction, it would not be safe for us to proceed.”

Dr Walker’s final argument hinged on the large number of cases. “We are dealing with such a large number of convictions that handling them in any other way would tie up the court system and delay justice for the Post Office victims, and even for others in unconnected cases, who could not get their matters to court,” he said.

“It is that combination — the compelling new evidence, the presumption of innocence, the political neutrality, and the sheer number of cases — that allows me to offer my support to the Bill.”

Lord Orford, responding to the debate, said that he understood the concerns of Dr Walker and others about the legislative approach. “We all share their respect for an independent judiciary,” he said.

“We agree that the separation of powers is a vital part of our justice system, but public confidence and faith in the system are also vital. This is a miscarriage of justice on a scale never seen before, and the circumstances are exceptional.”

Other approaches had been considered and rejected. “Ultimately, no reform short of this legislative approach provides the swift remedy needed as a result of these unprecedented circumstances.”

In closing, he said that the Government recognised the profound impact of the Horizon scandal. “We all know of examples in our local area where lives have been ruined, and each one is a very sad story on its own. Therefore, we legislate with that at the forefront of our minds, and the objective of this Bill is to exonerate those who were so unjustly convicted of crimes that they did not commit, and provide fair redress as swiftly as possible.”

The Bill was committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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