Thursday, 22 July 2021

Government to make interim payments of up to £100,000 to "unconvicted" Subpostmasters

Postmasters celebrating the quashing of their convictions in April this year

At last, a proper bit of cold, hard cash will finally be making its way into campaigning Subpostmasters' pockets, and soon.

Today the Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng told parliament:

"interim payments of up to £100,000 promptly to individual postmasters whose criminal convictions relied on Horizon data and have been quashed, ahead of final compensation settlements being agreed with them."

Paul Scully, the minister for Postal Affairs said:

"The suffering and distress these postmasters and their families have gone through cannot be overstated. While nothing will make up for the years of pain they faced after this appalling injustice, I hope this initial step provides a measure of comfort."

The government has chosen to ignore the majority of civil claimants, led by Alan Bates, the founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, who won a stunning series of victories against the Post Office at the High Court

Nothing yet for civil claimants

The 555 claimants in that case won £57.75m in compensation from the Post Office, but £46m went on lawyers' and litigation funders' fees, as the Post Office allegedly pursued a deliberate strategy to try to outspend the claimants in court.

Bates' has been demanding the £46m from the government ever since. His claims have so far been ignored, despite the Post Office supporting his argument.

I spoke to a delighted Seema Misra today. Vindication is one thing, and for her it was the single most important thing, but it doesn't pay the mortgage. 

Seema was sent to prison in 2010 on her son's tenth birthday whilst she was pregnant with her second child. She very nearly lost her baby (who I am delighted to say is now a delightful young man). I made this film with Seema's husband, Davinder, whilst his wife was still in prison.

Immense anguish

There are people who have been earning a pittance or not working at all for years as a result of the convictions. The nest eggs they should have been building don't exist, they have debts and difficulties that were visited on them by a state-owned prosecution machine which did not have anything like the competence to wield its power properly.

Janet Skinner, who was sent to prison in 2007, and whose conviction was quashed in April this year, alongside Seema's, issued a statement today saying:

"I had to wait 14 years to have my wrongful conviction by the Post Office overturned by the Court of Appeal. I welcome today's announcement. The government, as the Post Office's owner and sole shareholder, was behind the Post Office's ruthless and unjustified defence of the civil litigation in which I was one of the claimants. That litigation caused immense anguish to those who like me - and my family - who had already suffered so much by wrongful imprisonment."

Tracy Felstead, who was sent to prison aged 19 in 2002 told me: 

"I’m happy and I’m glad the government and the Post Office are trying to sort this terrible miscarriage of justice. Unfortunately for some it’s too late, but I am grateful that they are trying to put an end to this."

Tracy has spent almost her entire adult life a convicted criminal, and knowing she had been wrongfully convicted caused her all sorts of mental health problems. I spoke to her this morning (before we knew the government was going to make this announcement) and she told me of the flashbacks, sleeplessness paranoia and trust issues which have plagued her life. 

l-r Seema, Janet and Tracy, on the day their convictions were quashed

Tracy also said that despite her conviction being quashed she still thinks everything is going to be taken away from her, because when she was a young woman the state took everything away from her and gave her no coherent reason for doing so. What's to stop that happening again?

Neil Hudgell, the solicitor representing the vast majority of the Subpostmasters whose convictions have been overturned at the Court of Appeal and the Crown Court in the last few months said:

“The dialogue we have been having with legal representatives instructed by the Post Office has been very positive to this date and there appears to be good intentions. This cautiously positive step is to be welcomed and suggests, hopefully, that the Post Office is now intending to do right by the many people it has harmed so badly.  This cannot be a delaying gesture though. This is money to which these clients are entitled. With regards to how final settlements are agreed, we want them to come to the table and be meaningful in what they put forward."

The Postmasters will have to apply for their interim payment, but it will not affect their rights to sue the Post Office for malicious prosecution. The Post Office has said it hopes the total sums of compensation due to individual Subpostmasters can be resolved by Alternative Dispute Resolution, often seen as a quicker and cheaper route to justice.

Paul Marshall, the barrister who worked with Seema Misra, Tracy Felstead and Janet Skinner said today:

"Interim payments of up to £100,000 to be made by the government (given that the Post Office has been rendered technically insolvent by the scale of the claims against it) to those whose convictions were quashed on appeal will no doubt make a very considerable difference to many of those afflicted by the Post Office’s mendacity in its prosecutions and its subsequent ill-conceived defence of the civil claims made against it.  It is also a very sensible commercial decision that may well protect the Post Office from a sizeable number of modest claims for malicious prosecution."   

Marshall wonders: 

"whether the government’s change of heart may be informed by considerations as to how things may play out in the Williams’ Inquiry, and that no harm will be done to the government by being seen to do ‘the decent thing’"

The Post Office CEO, Nick Read, said:

“Ensuring compensation is made as quickly as possible is a priority for Post Office. I welcome the Government’s support to enable these interim payments that begin to provide some redress to people who were badly failed. Whilst we cannot change the past, this is an important step towards meaningful compensation for victims and we will offer payments as soon as possible.”

Last word to Tim Brentall, a Hudgells client, whose conviction was quashed on Monday. He simply said: "It's a decent start."

Oh, and if you want to know what scandal is in Turkish, it's "skandalinda" - this story is spreading...*

*****************

UPDATE: * I am indebted to Matthew Scott, author of the excellent Barrister Blog, who kindly pointed out to me (within hours of the above piece being posted) that the Turkish for scandal is, rather prosaically, "skandal". 

He writes: "Skandalı can mean "the scandal" (it's more complicated than that though), and skandalında means "in the scandal"."

If I ever try to teach you Turkish again, suggest we do something else.

**********************

This blog is crowdfunded. I am also writing a book called The Great Post Office Scandal, which will be published by Bath Publishing in October 2021. If you would like to put a few quid in the tip jar (and join the "secret" email newsletter mailing list) or would like to buy a copy of the book, please click here.