Toby Jones, Mr Bates vs The Post Office - ITV

The ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, starring Toby Jones (pictured), drew attention and public support to the position of the subpostmasters

Total of 26 people will have convictions automatically quashed and offered fixed sum of £600,000 in compensation

Sub-postmasters from Northern Ireland who were wrongly convicted as part of the UK Post Office Horizon scandal are to have their names cleared.

The UK government announced on Monday it would extend legislation which will automatically quash convictions relating to the Horizon scandal in England and Wales to Northern Ireland.

A total of 26 sub-postmasters from Northern Ireland will have their convictions automatically quashed once the Post Office Offences Bill becomes law, which is expected before the summer recess.

They will also have the option of accepting a fixed sum of £600,000 (€695,000) in compensation.

Lee Williamson, who ran a post office in Portstewart, Co Derry, and was wrongly convicted of fraud by false representation due to a fault in the Horizon IT system, said it was an “enormous leap forward,” adding that “until it’s actually set in stone it’s difficult to believe, but it’s as good as it gets, really”.

Hundreds of sub-postmasters across the UK were wrongly prosecuted, or forced to make up shortfalls themselves, after the faulty Horizon computer software showed money missing from their branches.

Described as the largest miscarriage of justice in British legal history, so far the UK government has paid out £190m to over 2,800 victims, and overturned 103 convictions.

Announcing the move, the UK’s postal affairs minister, Kevin Hollinrake, said that it had “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.”

Solicitor Michael Madden, who represents a number of sub-postmasters from Northern Ireland who were wrongly convicted, including Mr Williamson, said while he needed to examine the detail, “at first glance, it’s fantastic news, and it’s a great relief to the clients that I represent.

“There just wasn’t an end in sight in terms of how the legislation would apply here in Northern Ireland, or how it would at all, so hopefully this is going to bring a bit of clarity to it and make things a lot quicker,” he said.

The announcement was welcomed by the North’s First and deputy First Ministers, Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, and by the Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, who praised it as the “fastest” solution given the “significant and unique” challenges the recently-restored Executive would have faced in delivering the necessary legislation quickly.

Mr Williamson told The Irish Times he had been “heartened” by the support of the Executive in ensuring the legislation was extended to Northern Ireland and highlighted the role of the ITV drama about the scandal, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, which was broadcast earlier this year, in raising public support for their campaign.

He said that in his case, the system began showing shortfalls around 2009 but at union meetings “there was nothing mentioned about it all, at any of the meetings, so you felt that you were making the mistakes in the branch.

“It got to the stage, by 2010, 2011, I thought, it must be me, so I put the post office up for sale, but the losses still continued.”

An audit in 2012 showed a shortfall of £16,200. “I’d tried to cover it as best I could, I’d put maybe £7,000 of my own money into it, but it was unsustainable.

“Because of the pressure on me, my mental health took a downward slide, and I was hospitalised for four weeks … I couldn’t understand what had happened, it made you question an awful lot of things and there was very little information forthcoming from the Post Office, it was basically there’s a shortfall, fix it, [and] we’re going to eventually prosecute.”

He was advised to plead guilty and received an 18-month suspended sentence; he is seeking to have this overturned by the Court of Appeal, and is due in court again on Wednesday, though this is likely to be superseded by the legislation which, once it becomes law, will quash his conviction automatically.

“I think anybody involved in the Post Office never looks too far ahead to even contemplate the redress, it’s always one step at a time,” said Mr Williamson.

“Beforehand, I carried a great burden of shame being involved in it all, you felt it was your fault, but now you know it’s so widespread among the UK and public opinion and public support is behind you, it gives you an awful lot of encouragement to keep fighting forward.

“It definitely gives you that glimmer of hope, that it’s a lot more attainable and certain now.”

Irish Times