It was box office material this week when MP Johnny Mercer tore into solicitor Martyn Day over his firm’s handling of claims against the Ministry of Defence.
Much of the ground in Tuesday’s defence committee session was well-trodden, and MPs clearly relished this chance to put the boot in. Mercer, along with other members of the committee, asked Day whether he felt pride in what he did, and how he could live with pursuing of service personnel implicated by civil claims. The response, as it always has been, was that Day was upholding the rule of law – a mission, of course, which he shares with the soldiers.
No-one could doubt the conviction and sincerity of Mercer as he defended his ex-colleagues and described how their lives had been ruined by the threat of litigation.
And let’s say for the record: Day and his firm made serious errors in how claims were handled following the conflict in Iraq.
While Day was cleared of professional misconduct, the firm pursued the Al-Sweady claims when it unwittingly had filed away a note which would have cast serious doubt on them. The cost alone of the subsequent inquiry – estimated at £31m – is enough to make any taxpayer recoil, whatever their view of Day and his work. One hopes the firm has learned lessons about questions to ask of third parties offering claims from remote and inhospitable territories.
Mercer stated in parliament – under the cloak of legal privilege which allows us to repeat this accusation – that Day was dishonest. No such charge was alleged by the SRA, let alone proved.
And this is where the committee lost its focus. Attack Day for his and the firm’s failings on Al-Sweady, but don’t let the collapse of these cases hide human rights breaches that may have happened.
Mercer may believe that claims led by Leigh Day were baseless, but on the face of it, the Ministry of Defence did not.
The government has settled 330 claims in total with Iraqi nationals who alleged a mixture of ill treatment and unlawful detention. On each occasion, compensation has been paid, with the individuals represented by Leigh Day. A further 600-plus cases remain to be resolved. Liability is rarely, if ever, admitted.
British citizens should be furious at this. Not with the law firm facilitating the claims but at the government department which settled them. Either these claims were legitimate - a notion which Mercer would presumably reject - or the MoD caved in and paid compensation from public funds, thereby selling out soldiers who were implicated.
Mercer can be angry with whoever he pleases. Day, an abrasive character who is highly unlikely to bow to demands for apologies, is a convenient target but is also a distraction. He pursued some lost causes, but that should not allow us to ignore claims where the government agreed to pay damages. Perhaps Mercer and his committee might also want to save some ire for that.