Westminster update: sub-postmasters to be exonerated

Your weekly update from the Law Society’s public affairs team on all the latest developments and debates in Parliament and across Whitehall.
The palace of Westminster in the evening.
Photograph: Thomas Riebesehl

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What you need to know

1. Signed, sealed, delivered: sub-postmasters to be exonerated

On Wednesday (13 March), the minister for enterprise, markets, and small business, Kevin Hollinrake MP, gave a statement to the Commons on new Post Office legislation. 

The Post Office (Horizon Systems) Offences Bill sets out to overturn wrongful convictions from the Horizon Scandal and exonerate the victims.

The minister recognised the “undesirable” nature of circumventing the traditional appeal route, despite the Criminal Cases Review Commission having already handled 71 Horizon-related cases as of February 2024.

Hollinrake added that an extraordinary situation required an extraordinary response.

Sir Bob Neill MP (Conservative) warned against the precedent set by the legislation, calling the move “most undesirable”. Sir Bob asserted he is eager to see what evidence the government has for requiring legislative overturning rather than a return to judicial processing with a presumption of innocence.

Hollinrake responded again alluding to the unprecedented nature of the scandal, but also highlighted that many victims may have lost trust in the criminal justice system following their convictions, leading to some not applying for compensation. 

On financial redress, Hollinrake has extended the £75,000 fixed sum award offers to the Horizon Shortfall scheme to create equality amongst the different avenues for obtaining compensation.

Hollinrake also pointed out that the number of applications submitted under the Group Litigation Order scheme were behind target, so new legislation would expand on fee guarantees so that anyone who chooses not to take an offer but submits individual claim will have their interim offer topped up to £50,000.

Finally, Hollinrake highlighted recommendations from the Business and Trade Committee to shift the processing of redress applications from the Post Office and bring it under the control of the government with independent oversight.

Hollinrake announced that the department would take on new independent advisors to sit on panels alongside government officials. 

We will continue to monitor the progress of the bill and engage with the government on the issues discussed above. 

2. Rwanda third reading: more questions than answers

Tuesday (12 March) saw the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill return to the Lords for its third and final reading, before the process of “ping pong” starts between the two parliamentary houses.

The Lords expressed their frustration that the government has failed to engage with parliamentary select committees on the bill, even at this late stage.

Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) said that the government has still not responded to the report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, despite his having asked for a response at committee stage, at report stage and now at third reading.

It was also flagged that the government has not assured parliamentarians that the requirements of the treaty have been fully implemented as yet.

Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (Crossbench) said that when the House voted to delay ratification of the treaty, it did so on the basis of a list of 10 requirements which should be fulfilled before Rwanda could be declared safe.

He said that he was still waiting to hear that these requirements have been fulfilled. Lord Kerr asked the minister to ensure that that the effective system will be up and running and reported to this House before the treaty is ratified and before any asylum seekers are deported to Rwanda”.

While the minister thanked the Lords for their time and energy in scrutinising the bill, he gave no indication that the government had given due consideration to their concerns, would be looking to accept their amendments, or to compromise on the initial drafting of the bill at all. 

The bill will now go back to the Commons for the first stage on ping pong on Monday 18 March.

We are urging the government to engage with the concerns expressed by Parliament and accept the Lords’ amendments to the Bill, or bring forward their own proposals.

3. Duty solicitor crisis: MP supports our call for action

Conservative MP Kevin Foster led a debate on Wednesday (13 March) highlighting the crisis among duty solicitor schemes across England and Wales.

Using our data, and thanking his own local law society in Devon and Somerset for its insight, Foster outlined how under 4% of duty solicitors, crucial to providing representation at the police station, are aged under 35.

Across Devon and Cornwall, covering his constituency of Torbay, the number of duty solicitors has crashed from 109 to 78.

Foster echoed our call for an immediate 15% increase in all criminal legal aid rates, noting our successful judicial review of the government’s failure to provide such an increase.

He also suggested the government look at incentivising young lawyers to work in criminal legal aid through a golden hello or funded training packages to reverse the decline in numbers.

Responding for the government, justice minister Mike Freer said that it would be responding to our judicial review “in due course” and outlined other changes to fee schemes the government has implemented over the past year.

Freer did acknowledge in some areas it was “quite a big ask” to provide 24/7 coverage, but he said he is confident the Legal Aid Agency is monitoring provision across the country.

We are continuing to press for the government to respond to the judicial review judgment and clearly recognise the crisis facing criminal legal aid.

Coming up

We are working on a number of bills in Parliament:

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