Rights of servicewomen and men stripped away by Overseas Operations Bill

The Overseas Operations Bill will strip British Armed Forces of their rights, undermine their international reputation and could put them at greater risk, the Law Society of England and Wales warned as new measures go for debate in parliament for the second time.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) intends to introduce a presumption against prosecution for allegations – including of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment – against armed forces personnel relating to events more than five years past and to place a time limit on compensation claims.

The bill also commits government to consider derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) before future conflicts – a move which the Law Society strongly condemns.

Law Society vice president David Greene said: “Only the MoD stands to gain from the proposed time limit on compensation claims, as it would avoid having to pay court-awarded damages and costs. If claims are blocked by the Bill the MoD would also be less likely to learn from past mistakes and improve practices.

“Worse, the time limit could prevent Armed Forces personnel, other MoD employees and civilians being recompensed for injuries suffered and medical conditions caused by military activities. We believe this would be a gross injustice both to those who have dedicated their lives to their country and to innocent victims.

“The Overseas Operations Bill purports to protect service personnel from a ‘wave of unmeritorious claims’ but provides no evidence for this assertion about the scale of this supposed problem. Nor did our research unearth any such evidence. Government must work from properly researched facts and publish the evidence it uses to justify new legislation to ensure transparency and accountability.

“Every area of the justice system is geared to sift out unmeritorious claims. In the extremely rare case a lawyer dishonestly brings such claims they face the most severe professional sanctions, as was the case in the single instance where this is known to have occurred in relation to investigations into service personnel.

“Our armed forces are rightly known across the world for their courage and discipline.

“Proposals to prevent the prosecution of alleged serious offences – including murder and torture – by service personnel outside the UK would undermine this well-deserved reputation and could break international law.

“The UK is obliged by international law to investigate and prosecute well-evidenced serious offences committed during overseas operations. In addition, domestic law does not have a limitation period for any other serious crime, and we do not believe there should be an exception here.

“British forces uphold and respect the rule of law on and off the battlefield. They are held accountable, as we all are, within our framework of laws.

“The courts judge each case on its merits, a process that is and must remain separate from government and public opinion.

"If the UK is seen to sets itself outside internationally agreed standards it risks fuelling a culture of impunity, undermining its standing internationally, its ability to hold other states to account and could disrupt international cooperation that has been cultivated over many years.

“The intention to opt out of an international human rights framework is not only disproportionate, it would set very dangerous precedent," David Greene said of the UK’s intention to derogate from human rights obligations in advance of future conflicts.

“The internationally agreed benchmark for derogating from human rights standards is if there is a threat to ‘the life of the nation’, something that would be highly unlikely to be established in advance of an overseas operation.”

On the government’s justifications for the measures introduced in the Bill, David Greene said: “The MoD’s use of the term ‘lawfare’ to frame this Bill is disingenuous and dangerous, giving the appearance of setting our justice system against the national interest and legitimate military action.

“Attacks on the integrity of the legal profession undermine the rule of law. Language accusing lawyers of ‘ambulance chasing’ and ‘hounding’ service personnel and veterans, as used in the government’s consultation response, fails to show appreciation for the foundations of our legal system, that solicitors advise their clients on their rights under laws created by Parliament.

“Lengthy and expensive investigations into service personnel that the MoD has repeatedly used to justify the measures in the Overseas Operations Bill have regrettably often been a result of shortcomings in investigations.”

Notes to editors

View the Law Society’s briefing on the Overseas Operations Bill

For interviews, contact Harriet Beaumont | 0208 049 3854

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Press office contact: Harriet Beaumont | 0208 049 3854 (out of hours 0203 189 1880)

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