Amendment 7

Part of Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 13 April 2021.

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Photo of Lord Hendy Lord Hendy Labour 5:15, 13 April 2021

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. I too support the amendments. In particular, I support wholeheartedly Amendments 7 and 8, which, if accepted, would obviate the need for Amendment 13. I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, in relation to Amendment 13, which in my view does not go far enough.

Clauses 8 and 9 would have the effect of preventing a number—a small number, I accept—of meritorious civil actions being brought by service personnel, or their estates and dependants, against the Ministry of Defence, where the latter has negligently caused their injury or death. I see no justification for imposing harsher limitation provisions for actions in respect of personal injuries or death that relate to overseas operations of the Armed Forces than in relation to other civil claims. The factual matrix in which a claim arises will always be a crucial factor in the determination of the court’s discretion to allow late claims. The imposition of the time bar in Clauses 8 to10 will undermine the confidence of military personnel who might be injured or die on overseas operations. They knowingly and bravely take the risk of injury or death in enemy action, but they do not consent to risks created by the negligence of the Ministry of Defence, as in the case of my former client, the mother of a soldier killed by a high-explosive shell fired at his tank from another British tank, which had mistaken it for the enemy. After interminable investigations, belated disclosure of documents and the work of our expert, the case was made that the Ministry of Defence was at fault for a long-standing failure to fit identification equipment and for a consistent failure to train tank commanders properly in identification.

The Ministry of Defence eventually settled the case with a substantial payment but no admission of liability. It took years. Had the proposed regime of Clauses 8 to 10 been in place, my client’s action might never have got off the ground. I feel I owe it to those who might in the future be in the sad position of my former client, having lost a son or daughter, to resist the inclusion of these clauses.

What can be the justification for imposing a bar on such claimants, a bar which does not apply to any other claimants other than in relation to members of the Armed Forces who suffer personal injury or death on overseas operations? The ostensible purpose is to bar vexatious claims but, with respect, that is nonsense. Bill or no Bill, there will always be unmeritorious claims. The courts have a powerful armoury of mechanisms for throwing them out. They do not need the blunt instrument of Clauses 8 to 10. Although those clauses would time bar some vexatious claims, they would equally time bar meritorious claims. That is not forgivable. It is no answer to say that there would be few of the latter. There should be none.

In any event, as the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, pointed out, all claims are subject to the Limitation Act, which imposes strict time limits on them. These may only be exceeded by express permission of the court—an exercise of the court’s discretion which is subject to specified and comprehensive conditions under that Act.

The imposition of the time bar in Clauses 8 to 10 is likely to undermine the confidence of military personnel who might be injured or die on overseas operations. They should not be subject to hurdles to which other claimants are not.

I agree with the sentiment of Amendment 13, which seeks to exempt service personnel from the time bar of Clauses 8 to 10. However, its shortfall is that it fails to bring the estate and dependants of such personnel within the exemption, thus allowing the time bar to apply to those in the position of my former client. Amendments 7 and 8 are therefore preferable. I had hoped that those who tabled them would have pressed them to a Division.