Claims Against UK Soldiers: A Balance To Be Struck

Recently there has been widespread media coverage concerning claims made against UK soldiers arising from military conflicts abroad. The years since the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen a huge number of claims brought under European human rights laws, with allegations ranging from moderate ill-treatment to torture and murder.

However, the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) recently decided not to proceed in 57 cases involving allegations of unlawful killing against UK soldiers in Iraq. The Al-Sweady Public Inquiry, set up in 2009 to investigate claims that Iraqi civilians were killed and tortured by British troops in 2004, concluded that the torture and murder claims against the troops were "wholly without foundation" and "entirely the product of deliberate lies". All the soldiers involved were exonerated from the most serious allegations. The Al-Sweady Inquiry cost £31million and the overall cost to the taxpayer of dealing with claims against UK troops is estimated to be around £150million. Costs of this kind are, of course, continuing to mount.

The outlay of public funds involved, coupled with the much-publicised findings that many claims are without foundation, have led recently to the government announcing a crackdown on "spurious" claims against the military. Ministers have criticised "ambulance chasing" law firms for fuelling a compensation culture, alleging that soldiers on the battlefield are almost as worried about being sued as reacting appropriately to high risk and high pressure situations. However, is it fair to pin this level of blame on lawyers? And what does the government propose to do about it?

It has been reported that possible measures include:

The option for the UK temporarily to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights before sending troops into action; Taking legal action against law firms who are proven to have pursued fabricated claims against the military; New laws to allow the government to recover the cost of dealing with bogus or unsuccessful judicial reviews from the lawyers involved in those cases; Stricter time limits on compensation claims to prevent claims being brought significantly after the events are alleged to have occurred; and Provisions in the planned British Bill of Rights to protect UK soldiers from human rights claims arising from actions abroad. Evidently, law firms should not pursue claims which they know (or have strong reason to suspect) to be fabricated and it is...

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