British soldiers facing prosecution for alleged abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan may have the legal costs of their defence docked from their pay by the Ministry of Defence, it has emerged.
Critics have pointed out that firms acting on behalf of Iraqi and Afghani civilians have had millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money paid out to them in legal aid, and have slammed the situation as “outrageous and penny-pinching”.
Most military personnel earn more than the legal aid minimum, meaning they are liable for at least a portion of the legal costs of their defence.
Those with a disposable income of between £12,475 and £37,500 a year may be eligible for some help with costs, funded through the Armed Forces own legal aid system, but higher ranking officers are likely to earn more than the upper limit making them fully liable for the cost of their own defence, which may run to thousands of pounds.
Lawyers specialising in military cases said the veterans would have to pay the costs in advance, with payments docked from their wages in five monthly installments, The Telegraph has reported.
By contrast, law firms who specialise in bringing cases against military personnel, on behalf of Iraqi or Afghani civilians, have had millions paid out to them in legal aid fees.
Similarly, the politicians who take the decision to send troops to war are able to claim legal funding, subsidised by taxpayers, to fight legal proceedings brought against them by the families of soldiers.
Nigel Kelsall, who runs the UK Veterans One Voice campaign group, said: “The Government is quite happy to send troops overseas to war, but then quite happy to prosecute the troops who are just doing their jobs.
“Legal costs should be paid by the Ministry of Defence. It is outrageous and penny-pinching that they don’t.”
Although the rules governing legal payments on behalf of military personnel are complex, they do state that the Ministry of Defence can opt to pay a defendant’s legal costs in full. However, it can also opt not to “if the department believes that the individual was acting outside the scope of his or her employment”.
Lewis Cherry, a solicitor with experience of defending soldiers accused of crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan said: “In all the years these rules have been in place, the military have never supported a single individual by paying his legal contributions before trial.”
Fellow solicitor Hilary Meredith said: “Why are we holding our servicemen to the same principles as common criminals?
“The MoD is funding multi-million pound inquiries into soldiers’ actions in Iraq and Afghanistan but they are hair-splitting over the money for solicitors’ costs.”
The prime minister, Theresa May, met with senior military staff on Wednesday night to quell rising anger over cases being brought against troops serving in both theatres. Ms. May told the heads of the Army, Navy, and RAF that she would not allow “abuse of the legal system” by law firms bringing cases against British soldiers.
On Monday, a spokesman for Theresa May said it was “right that we continue to support anyone from the Armed Forces involved in an investigation or inquiry and they will receive appropriate support, including legal advice where necessary”.
But Johnny Mercer, a Conservative MP and former soldier, said “I don’t understand how Number 10 can claim soldiers are being supported through the judicial process. I can only assume the Prime Minister was not personally involved in the issuing of this statement.”
An MoD spokesman said: “All those interviewed after caution in Ihat [the Iraq Historic Allegations Team] investigations have received publicly-funded legal advice and assistance.
“If their case is referred to trial, they are eligible to apply for support and our dedicated legal aid body would contact them to ensure they receive what they are entitled to – the MoD can, in appropriate cases, decide to fund legal support at trial without means testing.”
However, the MoD confirmed that legal costs for soldiers would not automatically be paid.