The Law Society of England and Wales is approaching its bicentenary (in 2025), but I suspect there is no precedent for a startling conjunction in recent pronouncements. In September alone, Chancery Lane has voiced its dismay not once but twice about the incumbent government’s cavalier attitude to international law.
A fortnight ago the Society was furiously exercised by the Internal Market Bill, a political conflagration that seems to have been doused for now. Last week it was the turn of the Overseas Operations Bill. This introduces: a presumption against prosecution for allegations – including of torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment – against armed forces personnel relating to events more than five years past; and a time limit on compensation claims.
The bill also commits government to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights before future conflicts – a move which the Society condemns.
Law Society vice-president David Greene said: ‘Only the MoD stands to gain from the proposed time limit on compensation claims, as it would avoid having to pay court-awarded damages and costs. If claims are blocked by the bill the MoD would also be less likely to learn from past mistakes and improve practices.’
What is worse, according to Chancery Lane, is that the time limit could prevent armed forces personnel, other MoD employees and civilians being recompensed for injuries suffered and medical conditions caused by military activities. ‘We believe this would be a gross injustice,’ it says.
Not every lawyer agrees. Andrew Tettenborn, professor of law at the University of Swansea, recently penned a cogently argued essay for The Critic magazine on why such attacks are misguided.
As an amateur psephologist, I’d expect the legislation to play well in former ‘Red Wall’ seats. And Keir Starmer’s paean to patriotism in his speech to the Labour party conference was indicative. One might have expected the dilution of veterans’ rights to have been the bill’s achilles heel – but not a bit of it. As I write, the bill has just sailed through its second reading by 332 to 77, with the SNP and Lib Dems joining just 18 Labour MPs in voting against.