Case study: Mr Bates v The Post Office

Between 1999 and 2015, hundreds of self-employed sub-postmasters at branches of the state-owned Post Office - many of them at the heart of small communities and often run by family teams - were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because faulty computer software wrongly showed thousands of pounds missing from their accounts. The drama has an immediate political impact with debates in Parliament and calls for emergency legislation. The injustices depicted in the drama had been known about for more than ten years, select committees had investigated, there had been court cases and a long campaign, but it was a TV drama which led to action. This indicates the weakness of Parliamentary scrutiny and the failure of legal processes as well as the power of TV drama to influence public opinion. This raises the question; should injustice on this scale be left to the luck and chance of a fiction on TV capturing the public's attention? The deaths of hundreds of haemophiliacs  who were infected by blood products carrying the HIV virus has not had the same attention. This is evidence that pressure group campaigns are of limited value if they can fail for so many years.

The government's solution to pass emergency legislation quashing all of the convictions of post masters show the sovereignty of Parliament in action. While Parliament routinely instructs the judiciary by passing new laws, it is highly unusual for Parliament to overturn the judgement of courts in past cases. Presumably the convictions were conducted fairly and according to the law. If they were and yet he conviction were still unjust  then it suggests the legal system is at fault, which casts doubt on the principle of the rule of law in the UK.

Other dramas that sparked change

The government is now under pressure to overturn wrongful convictions and deal with compensation, with ex-Post Office boss Paula Vennells agreeing to hand back her CBE in response to the public outcry. It marks a long-awaited breakthrough for victims. 

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that he was considering a proposal to exonerate the sub-postmasters en masse by act of parliament. Sunak’s official spokesperson said the legislation would clear people “on a blanket basis, clearing people’s names and making sure they access the compensation they rightly deserve as quickly as possible instead of waiting for years for the courts to wade through hundreds of convictions”. Labour welcomed the decision, all but guaranteeing any bill will easily pass through parliament. Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow business secretary, said: “This is an unprecedented scandal, and it will require an unprecedented response.” The government’s decision comes despite warnings from some senior politicians and lawyers that it would set a worrying precedent for parliament to interfere with the courts in such a way. It raises constitutional questions about the separation between Parliament and the courts.