19 Jun 2013

MoD faces legal action over dead soldiers’ human rights

The families of British soldiers killed in Iraq win a landmark legal victory to pursue damages from the government for failing to protect the human rights of their loved ones.

They claim the Ministry of Defence failed to provide proper vehicles and equipment which could have saved the soldiers’ lives.

The MoD has previously insisted that it is up to politicians and military leaders to make decisions over equipment used on the battlefield abroad.

But the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the soldiers killed while serving in Iraq were still under UK jurisdiction.

Shubhaa Srinivasan, from the law firm Leigh Day, who represents the claimants said: “The highest court in the land has now ruled the MoD, as employer, must accept that it owes a duty of care to properly equip service personnel who go to war.

“We have constantly argued that the MoD’s position is morally and legally indefensible.”

‘Common sense’

The court found that the servicemen, who willingly took on the risks of serving abroad, were entitled to the same rights abroad as they were at home.

If their equipment was found to be faulty at home, the government would have had a duty of care to fix it, for example.

Jocelyn Cockburn, the solicitor for Hodge Jones & Allen representing the group of families, said the ruling had established “what seems common sense for most families”.

She added: “That soldiers have human rights, and they do remain within the jurisdiction of the UK, and they don’t lose those because they are on the battlefield.”

The father of Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath, 22, who died after his vehicle was blown up in 2007, said it was a “good result” for the Armed Forces.

Outside the court he told reporters: “The MoD has a duty of care … Politicians say we have the best army in the world, well let’s give them the best equipment.”

He said the current rules allowed the MoD to send troops into battle with an “old broomstick”.

‘Properly protected’

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said the ruling was not about interfering with military decisions, but how our armed forces are all given the protection they deserve.

The Commission’s deputy director, Wendy Hewitt, said: “The Supreme Court’s ruling means that human rights protections have been levelled up so that we are no longer expecting our armed forces to fully respect the rights of civilians abroad while not being properly protected themselves.”

Families began to take action following a string of military deaths in Iraq. Corporal Stephen Allbutt, 35, of Sneyd Green, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, was killed in a “friendly fire” incident in March 2003.

The regiment have probably alienated me more than anything – because I’ve made a stand. Sue Smith, mother of Private Philip Hewett

He died after a Challenger 2 tank was hit by another Challenger 2 tank. Trooper David Clarke, 19, of Littleworth, Staffordshire, also died during the incident.

Soldiers Dan Twiddy, of Stamford, Lincolnshire, and Andy Julien, of Bolton, Greater Manchester, were badly hurt in the incident, said the families’ lawyers.

Private Phillip Hewett, 21, of Tamworth, died in July 2005 after a Snatch Land Rover was blown up.

Similar explosions claimed the lives of Private Lee Ellis, 23, of Wythenshawe, Greater Manchester, in February 2006, and Lance Corporal Redpath.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said that since the litigation had started, a wide range of protected vehicles including Mastiff, Ridgeback, Husky, Wolfhound, Jackal and Foxhound, have been available to commanders to match the most appropriate available vehicle to specific tasks based on the assessment of the operational risk.

He added: “I welcome the fact that the court has upheld the principle of the doctrine of combat immunity, albeit suggesting that it should be interpreted narrowly.

“However, I am very concerned at the wider implications of this judgment, which could ultimately make it more difficult for our troops to carry out operations and potentially throws open a wide range of military decisions to the uncertainty of litigation.”

‘Boy’s club’

Private Hewitt’s mother, Sue Smith, said she felt they were fighting a “system that’s so big”.

She said: “I don’t understand why they don’t just admit they got it wrong and there’d be no need for all of this to continue.

“The regiment have probably alienated me more than anything – because I’ve made a stand. To me, it’s almost like a boy’s club.”

In June 2011 a High Court judge in London said relatives could bring negligence claims but not claims under human rights legislation. In October 2012 appeal judges came to the same conclusions.

Today’s decision will allow Ms Smith, alongside other families to legally challenge the MoD. She told reporters: “With Philip dead, if I don’t do it, who will?”.