Lawyers “split” on Post Office exoneration bill, Chalk acknowledges

Chalk: We need to tread carefully

Lord Chancellor Alex Chalk admitted yesterday that legal opinion is “split” on the government’s Post Office (Horizon System) Offences Bill, designed to exonerate and compensate sub-postmasters convicted on the basis of faulty evidence from the IT system.

Speaking to peers at the House of Lords constitution committee, Mr Chalk also refused to say whether criminal defence solicitors would receive the full 15% pay rise recommended by as a minimum by Lord Bellamy in his independent review of the system.

Former justice secretary Lord Falconer asked Mr Chalk why he thought it appropriate to put “constitutional sensitivities” raised by the Post Office bill to one side.

The justice secretary said “a miscarriage of justice on this extraordinary scale is itself an affront to the rule of law”, and the “sheer number” of convictions, at over 980, the lapse of time, the loss of evidence and the fact that so many sub-postmasters had “totally lost faith in the system” were “wholly unique circumstances”.

He went on: “We should be very clear what happened here. The state, or at the very least an emanation of the state, broke this and it is for the state to fix it. This is not a failing of the judiciary.

“The courts have done what was asked of them and have proceeded on the evidence before them, but the reality is that people are dying, innocent people are dying, and we have to move quickly.

“This is difficult. Anyone who cares about the system has misgivings and we seek to tread carefully.”

Baroness Carr, the Lady Chief Justice, told the House of Commons justice select committee in January that the courts “could cope” with large number of criminal appeals in the wake of the Post Office scandal.

Lord Falconer asked how Mr Chalk would respond if the courts said they could deal “very quickly” with cases.

He said “legal opinion is split on this”, having spoken to “very senior lawyers”.

Mr Chalk explained that he “looked very carefully at a model that would have imposed a presumption that this is the fruit of a poisoned tree” and convictions were presumed to be tainted unless rebutted.

But “presumptions are there to be rebutted” and “the concern must be” that lawyers would say they should be rebutted and the courts “would take as long as they take to do justice on the facts before them”.

If the case was delayed and a sub-postmaster was acquitted, but they died before it happened, “the whole system would be brought into disrepute”.

He added: “It is incumbent on all of us to say that this is not a precedent. Everyone must make that clear. Parliament must make it clear.”

If there were suggestions as to how the government could make it “crystal clear” on the face of the bill, Mr Chalk said he would be “interested in that” because that was a concern that people could “rightfully raise”.

On criminal legal aid, he told peers that the government was spending £141m on the system but did not say whether it would pay the “full 15%” recommended by Lord Bellamy in his independent review – the subject of heated exchanges between Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, and Antonia Romeo, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice, earlier this month.

The justice secretary said the government “would not resile from” and “would comply with” January’s High Court ruling on a judicial review brought by the Law Society, which found that the way in which the Bellamy recommendations had been implemented was unlawful.

Describing himself as a “legal aid barrister on a career break” he said he “had to live with a government naming and shaming” legal aid barristers, “including me”.

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