Twenty-six postmasters from Northern Ireland who were wrongly convicted in the Post Office scandal are set to have their names cleared under new legislation.

Hundreds of sub-postmasters across the UK were prosecuted after faulty computer software calculated that money was missing from post office branches.

Some people went to prison while many were financially ruined.

The scandal has been called the biggest miscarriage of justice in UK history.

Affected postmasters across the UK will have the option of accepting a fixed-sum offer of £600,000 after their conviction is quashed.

On Monday Kevin Hollinrake, the UK minister for enterprise, markets and small business, said it has “become apparent” that the Northern Ireland Executive “does not have the ability to rapidly address the 26 convictions known to be within its purview”.

“It has become clear that postmasters in Northern Ireland could have their convictions quashed significantly later than those who were convicted in England and Wales, which would be unacceptable,” Mr Hollinrake added.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said he was pleased the the legislation will now be amended to include Northern Ireland and it “is the best way to deliver justice for the victims as quickly as possible”.

One of the 26 postmasters affected is Lee Williamson who ran a post office in Portstewart, County Londonderry, from 2003 to 2012.

He was later convicted after the faulty Horizon system recorded a shortfall of £17,000 in his accounts.

For the past two years he has been fighting to overturn that conviction.

“Today’s announcement has taken us all a bit by surprise,” Mr Williamson told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme.

“I was preparing for my Court of Appeal review this Wednesday as well, so if all things go to plan I should qualify for the conviction to be overturned within the legislation.”

He said he did not start his legal action for money, but to seek answers about his prosecution.

“It has been a difficult period, particularly during the aftermath of the audit,” the former sub-postmaster explained.

“I was hospitalised for four months trying to come to terms with what had happened, and then you are trying to get your life back together again.”

Mr Williamson welcomed the extension of the UK legislation to Northern Ireland, saying it “adds certainty and a bit of clarity to the whole process.

Solicitor Michael Madden, who represents a number of people affected by the Post Office scandal in Northern Ireland, said the announcement has come as “an immense relief” to his clients.

“Whenever the previous announcement had been made and Northern Ireland wasn’t included in that, it was a bit of a blow and the uncertainty was causing a lot of problems,” he told Evening Extra.

Mr Madden said his clients’ primary concern was to get their convictions overturned, and while the compensation would ease their problems, their campaign was “not about the money”.

“It will never bring back the years that they’ve lost but it certainly will help their families,” the solicitor said.

“Because a lot of these people were working people with families and had futures set out and hoped for, which were taken away from them.

“So having £600,000 or more will certainly go some way towards addressing that.”

Previously the Northern Ireland first and deputy first ministers and justice minister called for the law to reverse the convictions of sub-postmasters to also apply in Northern Ireland.

In a statement on Monday, First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the decision to amend the bill is “the fastest and fairest solution for all”.

“Those wrongly convicted have already endured years of emotional and financial stress through no fault of their own. They now deserve a swift resolution with their convictions overturned in the quickest and most seamless manner,” the Sinn Féin MLA added.

Deputy First Minister and DUP MLA Emma Little-Pengelly said: “I sincerely hope those affected take some comfort from knowing there will be no additional delays in having their convictions overturned.”

Justice Minister Naomi Long also welcomed the move, telling the Stormont assembly on Monday that while it “will not undo all the harm” of the Horizon scandal, it will “hopefully at least ensure equitable treatment for our constituents”.

“I think the uniqueness of the Northern Ireland situation, the length of time that legislation here traditionally takes, and also the small numbers of people affected within Northern Ireland, mean that it was, if you like, an exceptional case that they were able to include us in the legislation,” the Alliance Party leader added.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons in January that those previously convicted in England and Wales would be cleared of wrongdoing and compensated under a new law.

The Scottish government also announced similar plans for those convicted in Scotland, which has a separate legal system.

NI’s power-sharing administration was restored in early February.

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office prosecuted 700 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses based on data from faulty Horizon software.

Some 283 further cases were brought by other bodies including the Crown Prosecution Service.

BBC News