Neil Shastri-Hurst: Fabricated legal claims undermine Britain's fighting force
Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer and Conservative activist in Birmingham.
This piece was first published on Conservative Home on 31st January 2016
War is an unfathomable place. Unless you have experienced it first hand, it is impossible to imagine the pressures and strains our servicemen and women are exposed to. Situations change rapidly and complex information is flying in from multiple sources, often clouded in a haze of confusion and uncertainty. Anyone who dismisses the challenges of operating in such an environment is plainly foolhardy.
There has been a worrying and growing trend of late that threatens to compound this situation. The Ministry of Defence is facing unparalleled numbers of legal actions against its personnel. There are more than 1500 cases being examined by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team. Whilst it would be imprudent to suggest that there is no validity in any of them, it is unimaginable that the vast majority have any firm basis. These fabricated claims have the very real prospect of undermining our Armed Forces’ fighting ability in future conflicts.
Soldiering requires judgement but it also, inevitably, requires risk. I am not intending to argue that this should be anything other than a calculated, considered risk but a risk it remains. However, this ability to manage risk will be eroded if spurious claims, brought by unscrupulous individuals, are allowed to continue. In doing so the confidence of our troops to defeat our enemies will ebb away.
My fear is that those at greatest risk of losing out to this trend are our more junior officers. Those individuals, who at a relatively young age, are being tasked with enabling our strategic plans come into fruition effectively on the battlefield. If the threat of legal action hangs over them, every decision, every command becomes increasingly difficult to make. This poses a clear danger to the freedom of action our soldiers, sailors, and airman need to possess in order to perform their role successfully.
The Government have already identified the impact such unprincipled legal practice could have on our Armed Forces. Penny Mordaunt, the Armed Forces Minister, last week highlighted the issue in the Commons. In stating “it’s the behaviour of parasitic law firms churning out spurious claims against our Armed Forces on an industrial scale which is the enemy of justice and humanity," she made the Government’s position clear. This should not and must not be tolerated. And, before the Government and I are accused of dismissing cases out of hand, let us examine one such claim. Public Interest Lawyers brought a case against British Forces for the death of an Iraqi civilian. This was despite the Danish military accepting responsibility for the death 13 years previously. Often, misrepresentation of European Human Rights law is being utilised to facilitate these cases. This kind of ill prepared, opportunistic legal endeavour is morally wrong and has got totally out of hand.
The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, has spoken out on this issue in The Telegraph this weekend. He has stressed that accountability for actions on the battlefield must be maintained but that soldiers must feel “they are being held to account in a fair and appropriate way”.
It would be untrue to suggest that the legal profession have not acted to prevent such behaviour either. Following the Al-Sweady Inquiry, which found the accusations of murder by British troops totally unfounded, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority are investigating the practice and stated that practitioners involved should face disciplinary action. Any concerted ploy to besmirch our service personnel must be stamped out.
The Secretary of Defence must examine how our military personnel can be better protected from such spurious claims, and I am pleased to read that this is something high on his agenda. Whether this encompasses counter action against law firms or implementing legal safeguards for our troops in a Bill of Rights only time will tell. It is imperative European Human Rights laws are not abused or misused. If required, Britain’s removal, temporarily, from the European Court of Human Rights when forces are sent into conflict may be necessary. Whatever the solution, our military should be in no doubt – they make the ultimate sacrifice for us and it is our duty to protect them on their return.