The Conservatives have pledged to defend British soldiers from “ambulance-chasing” lawyers by ripping up Human Rights legislation and introducing a new Bill of Rights. Senior Tories said yesterday that abuse of the Human Rights Act was happening on an industrial scale and that soldiers were being “hamstrung” by the legislation.
Figures released Tuesday showed that legal claims for compensation over incidents involving British military personnel had already cost the taxpayer £90 million over the last 10 years, a figure which is expected to rise further. Almost £55 million of that sum was accounted for by just two public inquiries alone, the Daily Mail has reported.
One of them, the Al-Sweady inquiry, investigated claims lodged by two legal aid funded firms, Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) and Leigh Day, that British troops tortured and murdered Iraqi prisoners. The inquiry cost a total of £31 million. But the claims were found to be “wholly and entirely without merit or justification”.
Furthermore, a government report on PIL claims that their lawyers knew the allegations to be untrue for a whole year, yet said nothing, costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds more than necessary. The government is now planning to sue PIL for compensation and has sought to have their chief lawyer, Phil Shiner, struck off. Despite this, the firm is still continuing to bring cases against the MoD for Iraqi deaths using the Human Rights Act.
Speaking last night, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon vowed to end abuse of the Act by law firms who were lodging cases on an “industrial scale”.
“This abuse has got to stop and the next Tory government will limit the reach of human rights cases to the UK so our forces overseas are not subject to persistent human rights claims,” he said.
The Conservatives will be pledging to diminish the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights in their manifesto. As part of that promise, the Human Rights Act will be scrapped and replaced with a Bill of Rights, giving better protection against litigation to soldiers on the front line. They will instead be subject to the rules of the Geneva Convention which allows lethal force as a first resort against enemy combatants.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said yesterday: “We can’t go on with a situation where our boys are hamstrung by human rights laws … I made it clear last year that I want to rip up Labour’s Human Rights Act and that it is only the Conservatives who will make real changes to the human rights framework to restore some common sense.”
The move has been welcomed by senior army officers, who fear a further 2,230 more legal claims may be in the pipeline. They have warned that unless the rules are changed, soldiers may have to seek legal advice before taking action – even in the heat of combat.
Colonel Tim Collins, who served in the Iraq War, said: “It is about time this happened. To [some] lawyers … the Iraqis are only a vehicle for profit. It is a shameless racket and must be stopped for everyone’s dignity.”
It has also been welcomed by front line soldiers such as Sgt Kevin Williams, who found himself “on trial for 12 years” after shooting dead Iraqi Hassan Abbas Said during a violent struggle in 2003. Sgt Williams conduct was investigated twice by the military, who cleared him of wrongdoing, only to then be again charged with, and cleared of murder.
But last year he was again handed a letter, summoning him before the Iraq Fatalities Investigation, organised to comply with Section 2 of the Human Rights Act. “To hear the Tories are going to support soldiers is a relief,” Sgt Williams said.
Last December it emerged that the Labour Party had taken £33,000 in donations from law firm Leigh Day, either directly or through its candidates. Former Defence Minister, Sir Nicholas Soames, has wrote to Labour to demand the party donate £33,000 to charities that help soldiers.
He wrote: “It says everything about today’s Labour Party that – rather than supporting our troops – they take donations from those who seek to undermine them. Ed Miliband needs to forfeit this money immediately. Otherwise people will conclude that he is a weak leader and utterly unfit to be Prime Minister.”