Amendment 23

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 11th March 2021.

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Lord Thomas of Gresford:

Moved by Lord Thomas of Gresford

23: Clause 11, page 7, line 34, at end insert—“(4A) The court may disapply the rule in subsection (1)(b) where it appears to the court that it would be equitable to do so having regard to the reasons for the delay, in particular whether the delay resulted from—(a) the nature of the injuries,(b) logistical difficulties in securing the services required to bring a claim, so long as the claimant was making all reasonable attempts to secure such services, or(c) any other reasons outside the control of the person bringing the claim.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment introduces a discretion for UK courts to allow a HRA claim arising out of overseas operations to proceed in prescribed circumstances so as to account for legitimate and explicable delays commonly experienced by persons bringing such claims.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General

My Lords, this group is concerned with the total cut-off of the right to bring proceedings, as contained in the Bill. As I have said, this is unique in the British justice system and limited to claims arising from overseas operations. You could call it the cliff edge, the blank wall, or hitting the buffers. We are dealing not with vexatious claims but all claims brought against the Ministry of Defence, whether by members of Her Majesty’s Forces, by victims whose claims arise by breaches of the Human Rights Act, such as torture, or by families whose claims arise because someone has been killed or injured. What is the policy behind this blank wall?

It is noticeable that this Bill does not cover Northern Ireland. I should be very interested and surprised if, when a Bill involving Northern Ireland appears, there was such a cut-off—such a blank wall—in relation to claims arising out of those deployments. I imagine that there might be considerable controversy. If it would not apply in Northern Ireland, why should a soldier suffering from long-term trauma as a result of service there be able to apply to extend the limitation period, in an appropriate case, but a soldier deployed to Iraq should not? What difference could be drawn between innocent victims of brutality in Northern Ireland or in Iraq? Their ethnicity? Is this not where Article 14 of the Human Rights Convention would bite?

I cannot believe that this is a policy to save the MoD money. What Liberal Democrat would ever make the bold statement of the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, that it is to save “a few bob”? What worries me is whether it is fuelled by a concern to prevent reputational damage. British forces have an admirable reputation worldwide for fairness and exemplary behaviour. Allegations of brutal conduct aired in the courts would not help, but it is essential to our reputation that, where there is wrongdoing, it is confronted and punished. There should be no suggestion that we sweep things under the carpet. I hope that that is not what lies behind this blank wall preventing claims after six years.

There is certainly a public interest in finality, but there is also a public interest in justice. These amendments are brought forward to get rid of the blank wall and to put claims from overseas operations on the same footing as all other claims brought before the British courts and tribunals. I ask again: what is the policy behind these unique, blank-wall provisions? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

The noble Lord, Lord Hendy, has withdrawn from this debate, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti.

Photo of Baroness Chakrabarti Baroness Chakrabarti Labour

My Lords, once more I can only speak in complete support and admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and what he is trying to express in these amendments. The Minister pointed out that there is considerable consensus in this debate on the value of limitation periods and of finality. That is right, but he went on to say that the only difference between us is where the limitation lines should be drawn. That is, of course, not quite right. There is also an important difference of principle between us about whether there should be any residual discretion at all for the courts, in the interests of justice and to avoid terrible injustice, particularly in relation to these dangerous, complex, messy overseas operations.

Other noble and noble and learned Lords eloquently set out all the reasons why sometimes an absolute bar of six years, or even longer, would just not be enough. This is not necessarily because of the act itself, but because of causation, or because the condition means that someone has not been able to think about advice or damages, or, in the current landscape, they have not been able to get access to advice.

In the debate on the previous group, the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, I think, said that we should not worry too much because there must be finality, that we are really trying to bar these overseas victims and that a much smaller number of veterans would be barred. The first answer to the noble Lord is that there is no finality for someone suffering terrible and life-changing injuries or bereavement, who has had no access to justice because of what the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, described as “a blank wall” or an absolute time bar. For someone suffering in that way, be they a victim of torture or a brave veteran put in harm’s way by the very Ministers and department that now bar their access to justice, there will be no finality, just a great deal of continued pain and suffering.

The second point that I make to the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is from the perspective of Article 14 and of human decency. It is particularly pernicious for a Government to send veterans to war and then to bar them from compensation after a particular, absolute point with no judicial discretion. In the case of terrible abuses of power, it is also wrong to have an absolute bar with no discretion for victims of torture or other abuses that sometimes take place in periods of conflict. Absolute rules without discretion, especially when they are imposed by Governments to protect government departments, are particularly unjust. Let us not continue with the canard that this is just about protecting veterans from the anxieties of giving evidence. It is not just about that. This is barring, in absolute terms, claims against the MoD from people who will, inevitably, include some veterans or people such as my noble friend Lord Hendy’s client, the bereaved mother of a veteran.

Photo of Lord Faulks Lord Faulks Non-affiliated 3:15 pm, 11th March 2021

My Lords, I make it clear that I do not take the view, as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, seemed to suggest, that we should not worry too much about limitation periods because this would impact more on victims who were not in the military. That is not my view at all and I do not think that I expressed it. I do not believe that there should be any distinction between categories of claimants on what the limitation period should be.

The question is whether, as a matter of public policy, whoever is the claimant, there is a public interest in litigation coming to an end. That is what underlies all limitation periods in all sorts of circumstances. Six years, which at the moment is the longstop, has been taken as reasonable, having regard to all the difficulties that may exist in bringing claims. However, the particular challenges of overseas operations, for whoever the claimant is, are such that that is a fairly lengthy period.

I do not believe that many of the claims that have been brought would in any way fall foul of either the primary period in negligence of three years or even the one-year period under the Human Rights Act. Six years is quite a long period. In my experience of personal injury actions in other fields, it is very unusual for a court, in its discretion under Section 33, to disapply limitation for such a long period, except in very unusual circumstances. Those circumstances tend to be in cases that are, in any event, covered by date- of-knowledge provisions—for example, latent disease or something of that sort. I am absolutely not concerned to bias anyone, but simply ask whether there is a public interest in there being an end to litigation.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas, raised a good question about Northern Ireland. As I understand it, there is likely to be a separate piece of legislation dealing with Northern Ireland in due course and I wait with interest to see what that is. My feeling about the provisions on limitation remains the same. I am not entirely sure that they are necessary, because the existing limitation periods are sufficiently sensitive to deal with some of the injustices that could arise from late claims. This is part of the agenda that the Government have to reassure veterans. The idea that it is entirely designed to protect the MoD is a somewhat cynical response. Reassurance for the veterans is a not unworthy aim but not, I entirely accept, if it runs the risk of causing injustice. For the moment, I am not convinced that it does.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, I am glad to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, does not want to bias anyone; I am sure that is absolutely right and we are all on the same page on that. However, he talked of a public interest in having a period of limitation. Clearly, there is a public interest here, but there is also a private, individual one. The amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, try to get that balance right. The noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, put the point very well by saying that we should not be talking about taking the role of the courts out of this entirely: there needs to be some discretion. Amendment 23 begins to rebalance this.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is right that, clearly, there is a period in which people can bring cases but, if our previous set of amendments, which would extend the point from one to six years after the date of knowledge, were not accepted, we would need some mechanism that allowed a bit of discretion because, at the moment, there would be none for the courts. As such, Amendment 23 is desirable in its own right, but it is even more important if other amendments are not accepted, either now or when they are put forward by the Government, or when they are moved on Report.

Could the Minister give a further response on the date of knowledge? In opening his remarks on the previous set of amendments, clarifying a point he made on Tuesday, he said that the 94% of cases that were brought within—or what would be within—time were within six years not just of the incident but of the date of knowledge. If that is the case, does that not make it even more incumbent on the Government to look again at the date of knowledge as a relevant time point to have in the Bill—and not one but six years?

Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow Attorney General

In effect, these amendments once again reintroduce the normal approach to limitation, which is that if you do not bring your claim within 12 months under the Human Rights Act or, if it is a personal injuries claim, within three years—based on tort or a breach of an implied contract—then the court can extend indefinitely, in effect, if it is just and equitable to do so. The courts have applied sensible approaches to those issues, and the longer you are away from the primary limitation period expiring, the better the reason you must have for extending the time.

The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made a very powerful point, asking why there should be special rules for the Ministry of Defence in relation to overseas operations. The answer that the Ministry of Defence gives is that military personnel involved in overseas operations should know—indirectly, because they will not normally be sued personally—that no litigation will arise from their conduct after a specified period, which is six years or one year from the date of knowledge, whichever is later.

That approach does not seem to me or veterans’ organisations to be legitimate in relation to claims being brought by soldiers or veterans in respect of negligence or breaches of human rights by the Ministry of Defence. Military veterans or existing soldiers should be subject to the same rules in relation to limitation as apply in any other claims. There is no evidence that the reassurance that individual members of the military are looking for—in relation to ongoing litigation out of overseas operations—is coming from fear of claims being brought by veterans against the Ministry of Defence for personal injuries caused normally by negligence on its part.

As such, in so far as the new rule about limitation in respect of overseas operations applies to prevent claims being brought by veterans or existing soldiers, I am against it. The proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, which, in effect, applies the normal rules, should be applied to veterans and existing soldiers who want to bring claims arising out of negligence or breaches of human rights in an overseas operation, just as much as if they bring a claim with the normal rules applying if the injury had occurred to them in the UK. The soldier injured by the provision of a negligent piece of equipment—body armour or a vehicle—can bring a claim with the normal rules applying if it happened on Salisbury Plain, but he or she cannot if the same act of negligence had occurred in an overseas operation. That is profoundly wrong.

Photo of Lord Stewart of Dirleton Lord Stewart of Dirleton The Advocate-General for Scotland

My Lords, the limitation longstops provide service personnel with a greater level of certainty that they will not be called on to give evidence in court many years after an event. The uncertainty that the Bill proposes to address can have a significant effect on service personnel and veterans. It prevents them from drawing a line under certain traumatic experiences, always knowing that there is a possibility that the events of the past may be dug up again. This is why it is important to have finality and why the limitation longstops need to have a clear end.

In moving the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, asks for the policy that underlies this measure; that is the policy. For the reasons that I have discussed, it is important that limitation longstops have a clear end, one that cannot be overcome. Were it to be overcome by the existence of some residual discretion, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, would seek to have imposed, that would negate the benefits to service personnel of greater certainty that they will not be called on to give evidence many years after the event. Let us remember that, in claims such as can be anticipated, it will most likely not be Ministers standing in the witness box and accounting for decisions taken; it is likely to be the very comrades of service personnel themselves.

Six years provides enough time to bring a claim: to echo the words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, it is a fairly lengthy period. The vast majority of service personnel and veterans already bring relevant claims within six years of the date either of the incident or of knowledge. As I say, giving discretion to the courts to allow claims after the expiry of the longstops will negate the benefits, and we want to provide service personnel and veterans with those benefits which flow from greater certainty.

The noble Lords, Lord Thomas of Gresford and Lord Faulks, adverted to a contrast with the situation that may arise in relation to Northern Ireland. That is indeed a special context, and, echoing the words of the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, this is a matter to be dealt with in separate legislation.

The longstops apply to all Human Rights Act and death and personal injury claims connected with overseas operations. We believe that six years is a sufficient period to commence proceedings, regardless of who is bringing the claim. Where claims cannot be brought within the relevant timeframe because the claimant was not aware that their injuries were caused by the actions of UK Armed Forces, the date-of-knowledge provisions help to mitigate any unfairness that might otherwise be caused.

Rather than extending the discretion of the courts indefinitely, I submit that we must accept that it is reasonable to have a line drawn after a particular period of time. This principle of finality was accepted in Stubbings v United Kingdom from 1996, a judgment that has been confirmed repeatedly. Here, the European Court of Human Rights upheld an absolute six-year limitation period. The court noted the need in civil litigation for limitation periods because they ensure legal certainty and finality, avoid stale claims, and prevent injustice where adjudicating on events in the distant past involves unreliable and incomplete evidence because of the passage of time—the very considerations which inform the Bill before this House.

We also need to provide the right level of training and communication to our Armed Forces to ensure that our service personnel are aware of their rights and can bring claims, if necessary, in a timely fashion. With the right level of communication, we would hope to see that those claims from service personnel which historically have been brought more than six years after the event would be brought earlier should they arise in future.

We must remember that all claimants already need to convince the court to extend the primary limitation period of three years or one year, and that these arguments are not certain to succeed. The later the claims are brought, the more difficult they are to prove, as well as to defend. It is therefore in the interests of all claimants to bring their claims as soon as possible. In situations where claimants are unaware of who was responsible for their injury, or where an illness is diagnosed many years after an incident or operational tour to which it is attributable, the date of knowledge provision will help to mitigate the impacts of the longstops.

However, I submit that we must move towards providing that greater certainty which will reassure service personnel and veterans. Therefore, while I acknowledge the words of the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, that these matters will be returned to, I recommend that these amendments are not pressed.

Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 3:30 pm, 11th March 2021

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his definition of the policy behind these provisions in the Bill. He said that we have a blank wall in the Bill because of concern for witnesses. Let us just pause for a moment and think about that. The prime witness is the person who perpetrated the act that is the cause of the claim. I refer to the reversal of the victim and perpetrator situation that I mentioned earlier this afternoon. The perpetrator must be protected from having to relive the violence that he inflicted on the claimant. What about witnesses—his “comrades”, the noble and learned Lord described them as? I am in a rugby mood at the moment, and I cannot help thinking of the out of order principle on the rugby field. A degree of violence is accepted, but when you see a member of the team stamping on the face of a person in the opposition, yards away from the ball, the out of order principle comes into effect. So the policy behind these provisions is so that the comrade, who may very well think that it was all out of order—that is why he is giving evidence—must be protected in case he suffers stress. It is a topsy-turvy world, it is not? Surely it is the victim’s interest that is the most important thing.

I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, for his contribution. He is a former Minister of State in the Ministry of Justice and he said, in terms, “I don’t really see the purpose of these provisions”. I agree with him. All the provisions relating to limitation are unnecessary, and the Limitation Act, with all those particular matters to which the noble Lord, Lord Hendy, referred in reminding us of its contents, is quite sufficient to deal with all the problems. What is not acceptable is the blank wall which prevents, in this single category, the continuation of proceedings if the six-year limitation period is attained. As the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, said, war is dangerous, complex and messy, as are the situations around it. What we should not have, in particular where it is complex and messy, are barriers to justice, and that is what these provisions do. Why? To prevent people going into the witness box. The whole concept of justice is turned topsy-turvy.

I hope I will return to this, with the support of other noble Lords—I welcome that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, in particular—on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment for the moment.

Amendment 23 withdrawn.

Amendments 24 and 25 not moved.

Clause 11 agreed.

Clause 12: Duty to consider derogation from Convention