Amendment 19

Part of Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Committee (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 9 March 2021.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 9:30, 9 March 2021

My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Smith and others, I am concerned that there should not be a different principle of limitation for service personnel for injuries received as the result of overseas operations as opposed to those injured while they are serving in the United Kingdom. However, I want to also speak up for the civilians in the country where the overseas operations took place.

I am not naive about this. I very much recall a court martial in Colchester, in 2005, for which a lady was brought from Iraq with a complaint that a British soldier had stripped her naked in the street and had caused her huge embarrassment. She went into the witness box, took the oath on the Koran and then turned to the judge and said, “Now I have taken the oath on the Koran, I have to tell the truth. I made it all up.” There were many complaints that were made up at that time.

At the time of the Baha Mousa trial, Mr Phil Shiner was wandering around trying to infiltrate our discussions, and he always had someone taking a note of the evidence as it emerged, which he subsequently misapplied. I am very glad that he was struck off by the Law Society.

That, however, should not prevent, in an appropriate case, a claim for damages going forward if it is equitable to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, expressed with considerable authority the complexity of this area of law and the difficulties that exist in any event—never mind in overseas operations.

There are valid claims. I put in a Written Question on 2 June last year. The Answer told me that, since 2003, there have been

“1,330 claims for damages relating to alleged misconduct … The claims … focus predominately on alleged unlawful detention but many incorporate allegations of mistreatment”.

The Ministry of Defence has paid out £32 million in respect of these allegations, and says that it does not pay out without consideration and finding the claim valid. It meets the bill, which does not fall on the soldier in question.

The practice of the court is not to extend to extend limitation periods easily, and that is a particular concern where valid claims are coming forward. When the court considers whether to extend the limitation period, it investigates all the circumstances. It is very difficult for a poor person in a foreign country to bring a case, and as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, pointed out, it is not easy to extend the limitation period. Date of knowledge is frequently an issue. Sometimes it almost seems as if when a court hears an application for an extended limitation period it will be granted on the nod. But that is not the case: it is a difficult thing to argue. I am, therefore, in favour of these amendments, and I look forward to seeing how they appear on Report.