Concerns are growing in the legal sector about legislation which will impose new time limits on veterans bringing personal injury claims against the Ministry of Defence.
The Overseas Operations Bill will be laid before parliament today for its second reading and is expected to pass through the House of Commons comfortably.
The legislation has been promoted by the MoD as offering stronger legal protection for service personnel and veterans by restricting investigations and prosecutions against them for historic acts in combat.
But there is a second part to the bill which creates a new six-year limit for veterans themselves to bring claims for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder or hearing loss. The MoD insists the changes will not prevent personnel and veterans from bringing claims, and that the vast majority of claims are already brought within six years. The time limit, it is pointed out, will start from the date of knowledge of the condition.
The Law Society has said it would be a ‘gross injustice’ to those who have dedicated their lives to serving the country if they were then denied the opportunity to claim for injuries.
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.’
The MoD appears to be taking on elements of the legal profession head-on over the wider issue of claims from civilians against the government.
In a briefing ahead of the second reading today, defence secretary Ben Wallace cited the case of Phil Shiner, a human rights lawyer banned over his conduct in bringing such cases, and talked of ‘scores of allegations that have amounted to nothing over the years’.
The MoD said almost 1,000 compensation claims for unlawful detention were made following operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as 1,400 judicial review claims seeking investigations and compensation for human rights violations. It did not say how many of these claims were successful, but stated that 70% of allegations received by the independent Iraq Historic Allegations Team were dismissed as having no case to answer.
The bill will introduce 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. The bill also commits government to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before future conflicts.
Veterans minister Johnny Mercer said: ‘This legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law but protecting them from lawyers intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets.’
Greene said that every area of the justice system is already geared to sift out unmeritorious claims.
He added: ‘In the extremely rare case a lawyer dishonestly brings such claims they face the most severe professional sanctions, as was the case in the single instance where this is known to have occurred in relation to investigations into service personnel.
'Our armed forces are rightly known across the world for their courage and discipline. Proposals to prevent the prosecution of alleged serious offences – including murder and torture – by service personnel outside the UK would undermine this well-deserved reputation and could break international law.’