Families can sue MoD over failings that led to deaths of troops
Last updated: Tuesday, 15th April 2008, 18:06
Families of British troops killed in war zones because of faulty equipment may be able to sue the Government for a breach of human rights after a landmark High Court ruling yesterday.
The court set out new grounds for legal action by stating that the Army’s duty to protect soldiers could extend to patrols outside a military base and even to a battlefield. After the judgment, some relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq — and who blame the Ministry of Defence for inadequate equipment, training or care — said they would consider bringing a group legal action.
Mr Justice Collins, in a judgment on the conduct of inquests into the deaths of service personnel, said that members of the Armed Forces serving abroad could not receive absolute protection. But he ruled that the MoD had an obligation to avoid or minimise risks to the lives of its troops, wherever they were serving, under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which safeguards the right to life.
The MoD reacted with alarm, as defence sources privately said that it raised questions over whether troops could ever be sent on operations since their protection could never be guaranteed in theatres of war.
Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, confirmed later that the MoD would appeal against this part of the ruling, calling it inconsistent with previous decisions. He added that the equipment supplied to troops had improved hugely since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 from when the case arose.
Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, described the ruling as “shattering” for Mr Browne and the MoD, which had argued that it was “impossible to afford to soldiers who were on active service outside their bases the benefits of the Human Rights Act”.
“[He] will hopefully at last wake the Government up to equipment shortages on the front line which threaten the lives of our troops,” he said. Defence sources said the judgment could not apply retrospectively and would only affect future cases where negligence is alleged, but admitted that it may widen significantly the scope for such claims. Bereaved families, however, said they would consider legal action regardless.
Mr Browne suffered another blow as the judge rejected the Government’s request to ban coroners from using pejorative language when giving verdicts on the causes of death of British troops, which the MoD said could be cited in support of such civil actions. Mr Justice Collins said that coroners should avoid references to negligence or breaches of a duty of care, which might sway any later legal action, but should be free to identify failures relevant to the cause of death, even if this boosted any law suit. The MoD said it would not appeal on this point.
Clarification of the law came as the judge laid down guidelines for the future conduct of inquests on members of the forces who die serving their country. The request for guidelines came in the case of Territorial Army soldier Private Jason Smith, 32, from Hawick, in the Borders, who died of heatstroke in Iraq. His mother, Catherine Smith, challenged the original inquest after an initial inquiry by military police was withheld from the coroner. She further complained that names had been blacked out in documents, confusing their context. The MoD also objected to a reference by Andrew Walker, the assistant coroner in Oxfordshire, to a “serious failure” by the Army to prevent Private Smith’s death, saying such language could be prejudicial to any later civil action.
Yesterday’s rulings capped a bruising week for the Government at the hands of the courts. The High Court attacked as unlawful the halting of an inquiry into allegations of corruption in an arms deal between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia. Moves to deport Abu Qatada, a radical Islamist cleric, and a dozen Libyans suspected of terrorism were also blocked by judges.
The law lords did, however, reject a move by Rose Gentle, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, to force an inquiry into the Iraq war.
- Times Online (15 Apr 08)