The government is drawing up plans to pull Britain out of the Convention on European Rights and replace it with a Bill of Rights in a bid to protect British soldiers from being pursued by “ambulance-chasing” human rights lawyers.
Over the last eleven years, the Ministry of Defence has spent an eye-watering £100 million on investigations and compensation on more than 2000 allegations of human rights abuses by British personnel during the Iraq war. A further £44 million is earmarked for new claims, the Telegraph has reported.
The level of litigation is such that it is hampering British efforts in conflict arenas, as troops fear being hauled before the courts upon their return home, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has said.
“We don’t need these ambulance-chasing British law firms,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “It is not only extremely expensive but it inhibits the operational effectiveness of our troops because they start to worry about whether they will end up in a court or not.”
In March of this year, a government report on the law firm Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) found that the firm knew allegations against British soldiers of murder and torture to be untrue but withheld that information from an inquiry for over a year, at a cost to the taxpayer of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
It also found that PIL used local agents to trawl for locals who were willing to bring claims against the British forces. If true, it would constitute a flagrant breach of rules designed to stop solicitors touting for business.
Senior military commanders have said that the allegations against the British soldiers had caused military personnel and their families “very great emotional strain” over the last decade. One serviceman has been put on suicide watch thanks to the pressure caused by the false allegations.
As part of measures intended to prevent false allegations being pursued in the future, Mr Fallon, along with Justice Secretary Michael Gove is playing an instrumental part in realising the British Bill of Rights to replace the current Human Rights Act, which enshrines the European Convention in British law.
They plan to include in the new Bill a derogation clause which would allow ministers to temporarily withdraw from the Convention when sending troops into battle.
“I would like to see [the Bill of Rights] soon because some of these court rulings are beginning to affect the effectiveness of British troops,” Mr Fallon said.
If military action is required before the new Bill of Rights becomes law, ministers could publicly declare derogation from the Convention to protect military personnel from vexatious claims. However, the derogation would need to be approved by votes in the Commons, where the government has only a slim majority, and in the Lords, where it does not have a majority.
For that reason, officials are working on a range of alternative options, including setting a time limit for cases to be brought, and pursuing legal action against firms which file bogus claims.
Further reforms could end legal aid for claimants who are living outside the UK.
An MoD spokesman said: “We will ensure our Armed Forces overseas are not subject to persistent legal claims that undermine their ability to do their job. Ministers have commissioned detailed work and will make any further announcements in due course.”