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'Parasitic law firms' blamed for legal actions against UK troops

Published 27/01/2016

Some Iraq veterans are being investigated into their actions during the campaign
Some Iraq veterans are being investigated into their actions during the campaign

British troops need more than body armour when sent into battle as they are also up against "parasitic" lawyers, a Defence Minister has said.

Penny Mordaunt told MPs the courts have dealt with claims of an insurgent bomb-maker who sued the country's armed forces for not shooting him and instead taking him prisoner.

She also said Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) submitted allegations in 2014 of an "hysterical" British solider shooting an Iraqi - despite Danish forces accepting liability and paying compensation over the incident 11 years earlier.

In a further case, Ms Mordaunt said PIL claimed a 13-year-old girl had been killed after picking up part of a UK cluster bomb.

But she explained the law firm later acknowledged it was a 13-year-old boy who had been killed while in the vicinity of an Iraqi mobile missile launcher preparing to attack Kuwait - which wa s destroyed by a coalition helicopter.

Ms Mordaunt revealed the details of the cases as Tory former minister Richard Benyon warned legal action against Iraq veterans could put British soldiers serving in war zones at risk.

Mr Benyon, a former soldier who serves on the Defence Select Committee, criticised the long-running investigation into claims that British military personnel abused civilians during the 2003 to 2009 conflict.

He also suggested British soldiers operating abroad should not to be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights.

Conservative Richard Drax (South Dorset), also a former soldier, hit out at PIL and Leigh Day, telling MPs : "The perception is that left-leaning lawyers are intent on undermining one of the pillars of the establishment, namely the armed forces, and given the opportunity are jumping to the task with relish."

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to crack down on ''spurious'' legal claims made against troops who served in the Iraq War, with more than 1,500 allegations submitted to the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat).

Speaking during a Westminster Hall debate, Tory minister Ms Mordaunt said no apologies should be made for investigating and holding to account British armed forces.

But she said: "The steady creep of extending the reach of European human rights legislation not written for conflict situations is eroding international humanitarian law, and it is the behaviour of parasitic law firms churning out spurious claims against our armed forces on an industrial scale which is the enemy of justice and humanity - it is not our armed forces or the Ministry of Justice."

Ms Mordaunt added: "When the courts entertain claims against our armed forces of the likes of an insurgent bomb-maker suing us for not shooting him in a firefight, but instead taking him prisoner and holding him we until we could guarantee he would not face mistreatment in the local justice system, then it's not just our armed forces who suffer, the strain on them and the corrupting effect on their behaviour in the field, it is the cause of human rights that suffers too.

"Today when faced with the likes of Leigh Day and PIL we need to wrap our service personnel in more than just body armour when we send them out to defend freedom."

Addressing some of the "illuminating" cases dealt with by Ihat, Ms Mordaunt said: "Case number 377 - it was alleged that a passenger in a car was shot by 'an hysterical British soldier in a tank'.

"That Ihat investigation ascertained that PIL had submitted this allegation in October 2014 despite Danish armed forces accepting liability for this incident and paying compensation in 2003."

One Tory MP could be heard saying "shame" as Ms Mordaunt finished reading out the details.

Ms Mordaunt added: "Case number 123 - it was alleged that a 13-year-old girl had been killed when she picked up part of a UK cluster bomb that had failed to detonate.

"The Ihat investigation established that a 13-year-old boy had been killed but was unable to ascertain whether it was Iraqi or UK munitions responsible.

"PIL challenged the MoD's decision not to refer this to the IFI. The MoD defended the challenge on the basis of that information.

"Shortly before the hearing, PIL disclosed a witness statement by the boy's father made before the Ihat investigation in which he said he'd been killed while in the vicinity of an Iraqi mobile missile launcher preparing to fire missiles into Kuwait, which was destroyed by coalition helicopter.

"There are many other cases I can mention, which concluded through thorough investigation that UK service personnel had acted in self-defence, in the defence of others and lawfully.

"Ihat enables us to meet our obligations to investigate serious wrongdoing and its work is exonerating those wrongly accused and rejecting bogus allegations."

Opening the debate, Mr Benyon recalled his personal experience of a 19-year-old soldier who "in a tense situation" shot and killed someone - contrary to the rules for opening fire.

The MP said: "He was convicted for murder and it's a case that's haunted me for 34 years.

"My worry is that the legal imperialism we have seen in recent years and the existence of organisations like Ihat will put a dangerous caution into the minds of the sniper of the future.

"Rather than taking a life to save many, a caution prompted by fear of legal implications might - to quote (Sir Nicholas Soames, Tory MP for Mid Sussex) - 'put a splint around his trigger finger'.

"The analogy extends to every area of war, from the most junior soldier just out of training to the most gnarled veteran of a quarter century of expeditionary warfare, the Apache pilot, the mortar platoon commander, the frontline rifleman, all need to be governed by the rule of law - but which law.

"That is the matter the minister and the Government must tackle with haste.

"However despicable we might think the actions of certain lawyers are, they are only responding to the circumstances and a climate by governments of the past and the present.

"My argument is that the rules we have created actually put our servicemen and women in greater danger in the future. That cannot be right."

Tory MP Victoria Prentis (Banbury), who was previously in charge of the MoD's litigation team, said her team faced "a tsunami of litigation" from 2010.

She described Ihat as "the least bad option available", noting: "My own view is that Ihat should be encouraged to press on given where we are at the moment, but that we should find new ways to deal with these issues in any future conflict."

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