Parliamentary briefing: Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – House of Lords report stage
This briefing outlines our views in relation to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill ahead of it being debated at report stage in the House of Lords.
The bill, which underwent committee stage in the Lords in March, has a stated aim of addressing vexatious claims and the prosecution of historical events that occurred in armed conflict overseas.
It has implications for the application of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), and introduces a statutory presumption against prosecution for certain cases and time limits for civil and human rights claims.
While the government’s stated objective of reducing false claims against service personnel and veterans is a valid aim, we believe that this bill goes far beyond this purpose and would bar legitimate allegations of serious criminal offences.
The introduction of a presumption against prosecution in the bill creates a special category of criminal case, which until now has been unrecognised in UK law. It amounts to a quasi-statute of limitations and would likely, in practice, prevent some legitimate prosecutions from proceeding or being brought.
The UK is legally obliged to investigate and, where the evidence supports it, prosecute alleged offences such as torture and unlawful killing. The bill may engender a breach of the UK’s international obligations in respect of this, under article 7 of the UN Convention Against Torture and articles 2 and 3 of the ECHR.
We do not consider that the circumstances in which the government intends to derogate from ECHR obligations would meet the necessary legal requirements. In any case, the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment cannot be derogated from.
To derogate ahead of armed conflicts would undermine our own international standing and ability to hold other states to account for abuses in war. It may also place our own armed forces personnel at increased risk of being subjected to abusive treatment if captured.
We do not consider that a limitation period for civil and human rights claims is necessary.
We have seen no evidence to suggest the courts are unable or unwilling to use their discretion to sift out unmeritorious claims. They can and do reject claims with little chance of success, where:
- the passage of time has affected the evidence, or
- the public interest outweighs the claim
We support the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report on the bill.