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A Royal Mail Post Office in London, Oct. 10, 2013.Lefteris Pitarakis/The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has bowed to public pressure and announced plans to take the unusual step of introducing legislation to overturn the convictions of hundreds of former Post Office branch managers.

Mr. Sunak has been facing an outcry over a scandal that has plagued the Post Office for more than 20 years. The outrage began last week after the airing of the four-part miniseries Mr. Bates vs. The Post Office, which tells the story of the more than 700 managers of Post Office outlets who were convicted between 1999 and 2015 for theft, fraud or false accounting over issues that, it turned out, were actually caused by the company’s accounting software, Horizon.

Post Office officials relied on private prosecutions to vigorously go after the branch managers, who are known as subpostmasters. Commercial organizations in Britain are entitled to use private prosecutions, which do not involve Crown prosecutors, to address a variety of crimes, including fraud and theft.

The Post Office’s lawyers refused to accept that the Horizon system was to blame despite the fact subpostmasters had repeatedly reported problems with the software. Finally, in 2019, a High Court judge ruled that Horizon had numerous flaws and chastised Post Office officials for denying the system had bugs that caused financial discrepancies.

Overturning the convictions has been a painstaking process; so far only 95 subpostmasters have been exonerated by appeal courts. Just 30 have received compensation under a scheme set up by the Post Office and the government, which owns the company. The Post Office is separate from Royal Mail, the delivery service, which was privatized in 2012.

On Wednesday, Mr. Sunak said the government would circumvent the appeal process and introduce a law that will overturn all the convictions and speed up the compensation process, which will award at least £600,000 – about $1-million – to victims.

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street on Jan. 10, in London.Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Mr. Sunak also announced a payment of £75,000 to each of the hundreds of subpostmasters who were not convicted of a crime but were nevertheless forced to repay the Post Office substantial sums of money to make up for shortfalls caused by Horizon.

“This is one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our nation’s history. People who worked hard to serve their communities had their lives and their reputations destroyed through absolutely no fault of their own,” Mr. Sunak told the House of Commons. “The victims must get justice and compensation.”

Kevin Hollinrake, the cabinet minister responsible for the Post Office, acknowledged that the sweeping legislation could be seen as improper interference by Parliament in the judicial system. “I am sure that this will attract some critics,” Mr. Hollinrake told the House of Commons on Wednesday. “We saw this as the lesser of two evils.”

He cautioned that the proposed bill could create another form of injustice because it’s not clear that all of those who were convicted were innocent.

“We have been faced with a dilemma,” he said. “Either accept the present problem of many people carrying the unjustified conviction, or accept that an unknown number of people who have genuinely stolen from their Post Office will be exonerated or perhaps even compensated.”

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Everyone who is exonerated and receives compensation will have to sign a statement saying they did not commit the crimes for which they were convicted. Anyone found later to have been untruthful could be charged with fraud. “I do not pretend to the House that this is a foolproof device, but it is a proportionate one which respects the ordeal which these people have already suffered,” Mr. Hollinrake said.

He also indicated that the company behind the Horizon software, Japan-based Fujitsu, could be forced to contribute to the compensation fund if an ongoing public inquiry into the scandal concludes the company was at fault. “As ministers, we must bear responsibility for what we do, as well as expect people within the Post Office, Fujitsu and others to bear responsibility,” he told MPs.

Horizon was developed by a government company, International Computers Ltd., which was acquired by Fujitsu in 2002.

Horizon is still being used by the Post Office and several government departments. A statement issued by Fujitsu said the firm was “fully committed to supporting the inquiry to understand what happened and learn from it.”

Former subpostmaster Tim Brentnall, who received an 18-month suspended jail sentence in 2010 for false accounting, welcomed Mr. Sunak’s announcement. “This is what we’ve been calling for, the quashing of all convictions, the government to legislate for it, to move it on,” Mr. Brentnall told the BBC.

His conviction was overturned in 2021, but he has yet to receive compensation. “It has been 2½ years since my conviction was quashed, and nothing has really happened for me in that 2½ years,” he said.

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