Examination of witness

Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:35 am on 6th October 2020.

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Hilary Meredith gave evidence.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale 10:30 am, 6th October 2020

We are now going to hear from Hilary Meredith, of Hilary Meredith solicitors, who is joining us in person. We have until 11 am for this session. Hilary, could you introduce yourself for the record, please?

Hilary Meredith:

Yes, I am Hilary Meredith.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Thank you. As you have seen from the previous session we have some logistical issues, because Members who wish to question you will have to move to a seat where there is a microphone, or we have a standing microphone just behind you. I hope that you will bear with us as we move forward with those logistics. The two Members who have indicated that they wish to question you during this session are Emma Lewell-Buck and Carol Monaghan. If there is anyone else—Sarah Atherton, I will take you as well. So, Emma.

Photo of Stuart Anderson Stuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

I want to be on every question, Chair.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

I suggest that we might logistically arrange for people who do want to ask questions, or anticipate asking questions, to be at the table where they would have access to a microphone. It makes it so much easier. Emma Lewell-Buck, I call on you to start the proceedings.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Hello, Hilary, good morning. My first question is: do you think that it makes sound legal sense to gather changes to criminal and civil law together in the same Bill?Q

Hilary Meredith:

No, I do not, and that is one of my issues with the Bill—that it mixes civil and criminal law together.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Q Why is that? What pitfalls do you envisage should the Bill go through unchanged and become an Act of Parliament?

Hilary Meredith:

One of the issues with the Bill is that we need to look backward to find out how we got into the present situation, before we can cure it. Most of the criminal allegations arose out of civil proceedings by Iraqi foreign claimants against the Ministry of Defence. Great caution needs to be taken when criminal allegations arise out of a compensation cheque carrot being dangled. For that reason alone there needs to be a separation with the two—criminal and civil law.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Q Thank you for that. Does the Bill do anything for existing veterans and service personnel who have been dragged through repeated investigations?

Hilary Meredith:

I think that leads on to it: because many of the criminal allegations arose out of a civil compensation claim, great caution should have been exercised. I cannot believe that extra care was not taken, and under those circumstances I can quite see there should be a presumption against guilt. It was not helped by the Ministry of Defence then paying cash to civilians in Iraq by way of compensation, which almost indicated guilt. That led on to the criminal prosecutions.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Q Is five years the right period for a cut-off? Should it be seven, three, or some other number?

Hilary Meredith:

I am against any cut-off, to be honest. I think the reason why the cases became historic is not the date of the accusation—any of the criminal accusations under human rights law, for example, came within 12 months of the incident taking place. It was the prolonged procedure that was bungled afterwards that made those cases historic. It is the procedure and investigation in the UK that need to be reviewed and overhauled, and not necessarily a time limit placed on criminal or civil prosecutions.

Also under that heading, I have an issue with the longstop applying to civil cases where personnel are overseas on operations and military personnel have a longstop placed on their claims as well. I understand that that has been put in on a equitable basis, so that if there is a longstop for a criminal prosecution, it also has to apply to civil law, but I am not sure about that.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Q Do you expect more prosecutions of UK armed forces personnel and veterans in the International Criminal Court?

Hilary Meredith:

The answer to that is that I do not actually know. I think that lawfare instance came mainly from one or two lawyers. Phil Shiner was a one-off. He brought civil claims for compensation first, and as a result of that the prosecutions followed. If we had a robust procedure for investigating those cases and, for example, an independent advocate who has the back of the individual member of the armed forces and supports them, many of those cases would not have been advanced to the point that they were, with the subsequent criminal allegations.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Labour, South Shields

Thank you, Chair—I will leave it there so others can come in.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Thank you for observing the microphone requirement. I call Stuart Anderson.

Photo of Stuart Anderson Stuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Q Thank you, Chair—it is an honour to serve on the Committee. Ms Meredith, you have mentioned what you think is wrong in the Bill. Obviously, we are looking to protect serving personnel and veterans in the future. If you do not think the Bill is right, what do you suggest we do?

Hilary Meredith:

I think the overarching view of the Bill is correct, but there does need to be protection in place. When criminal prosecutions arise out of civil compensation cheques being dangled, there should be a presumption of innocence and no prosecution should really take place without extra care and caution.

I think that the time limit is a bit of a red herring, to be honest. We do not need time limits on it; most of the allegations were brought in a timely manner. I have searched to see whether our courts ever exercise their power of discretion under the Limitation Act for human rights allegations—they have to be brought within 12 months. I cannot find a single case on a preliminary investigation in which the courts have extended a 12-month time limit under the Human Rights Act. I can see one case where they have extended the date that time begins to run, and in multiple proceedings, that is not at the beginning of the process but at the end.

For example, under IHAT, it was only in June this year that we found out that of those 4,000 vexatious criminal claims, there was not a single prosecution. In those circumstance, if a member of the Armed Forces wishes to bring their own human rights claim for lack of a speedy trial, that time runs from June this year.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Q Thank you for your evidence so far. In response to Emma Lewell-Buck’s questioning, you talked about the need for proper investigation. Can you expand on that and tell me what you see that as being?

Hilary Meredith:

The investigations that took place following the civil claims were shambolic to be honest. I know that you will hear from Robert Campbell after me; he would have liked to have been heard in the European courts, because our system was so shambolic and went on forever. That is a very extreme viewpoint to take—we cannot investigate properly in this country.

The Royal Military Police need special training. You have to understand that they are investigating crimes overseas and in a war zone. It is extremely difficult. It may be that they take training from, for example, the Metropolitan police on investigating crimes. It is a very difficult area to investigate. We need to have a robust system of procedures to investigate crimes, rather than putting time limits on it.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Q Thank you. When we hear about repeat investigations, what sort of form do they take?

Hilary Meredith:

For example, if I can use the case of Major Campbell, the investigation against him included a drowning in the river in Iraq. That allegation came within a year of the incident. He was told by his commanding officer not to worry about it because it would be cleared—it would be sorted. Then began a process where over 17 years, he was investigated 11 times for the same incident. That is the shambolic system of procedure that we are operating in this country and that is what needs to be reviewed and overhauled.

Hilary Meredith:

I think the original investigation was by the Royal Military Police. It was perceived that they were not independent enough, so the IHAT team was formed. Under the IHAT team, we then had this terrible form of investigation through Red Snapper, which Parliament has heard about before. Its methods of investigation and what it put those accused through was quite horrific. Had there been an independent advocate that had the backs of the individual members of the armed forces—not the Ministry of Defence, which cannot act; there is a conflict—there would have been a buffer between the Red Snapper team and the IHAT team and the individual person. I think that would have solved a lot of mental health issues as well.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

Q You mentioned that you are concerned about the six-year longstop in part 2 of the Bill. Can you give an example of where that would be problematic?

Hilary Meredith:

There is a difficulty putting a time limit on the Human Rights Act—I do not even know whether we can do that constitutionally, because it is a European convention. If there is a six-year time limit on criminal allegations, I have concerns about that. I think most of those criminal allegations were brought well within time anyway; as I said, it is the process that was wrong.

For civil claims against the Ministry when people are injured or killed in service overseas, I do not think a longstop should be applied. There are tremendous difficulties in placing people in a worse position than civilians. In latent disease cases—diseases that do not come to light until much further down the line, such as asbestosis, PTSD, hearing loss—it is not just about the diagnosis. Many people are diagnosed at death. It is about the connection to service. That connection to service may come much later down the line, and by that time they will be out of time to bring a claim.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

One of the things that has come out from what you have said, and certainly what I have read throughout all of this, is the issue around poor investigations and the investigation industry, as it became, in Major Campbell’s case. You have already said that there should be an advocate on behalf of somebody who is accused. If we could put that into the Bill, would you welcome it? Secondly, is there any way we could put time limits or controls on the length of investigations?Q

Hilary Meredith:

That is a really interesting point, actually. I had not thought of a time limit on investigations. Certainly under the Human Rights Act, there is a right to have a speedy trial, and that did not happen in these cases. There were no speedy trials. A limit on the time that an investigation takes would, I think, be really welcomed. Sorry, I cannot remember your second question.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q The other one was about advocates. As you say, the individual is a bit disadvantaged because they have the weight of the MOD and the investigation against them. Could we instigate something whereby they are given an advocate to act on their behalf?

Hilary Meredith:

Parliament had an inquiry into what support they were given. Basically, there was none. It is not so much the serving personnel, but the veterans—there was no telephone number for them to phone. At one point, I was told, “Phone the Veterans Agency.” The Veterans Agency deals with pensions. If you are arrested and in a police cell at midnight, you cannot phone a pensions department for help. The penny dropped when I said that to the Ministry of Defence.

If someone was appointed independently from the Bar Council or the Law Society, and it was freely advertised, even given to personnel before they go on operations, then they would have a telephone number to phone for support and advice. I think that is crucial. The process of the investigation may have been reduced if they had had an advocate in their corner, questioning why this was going on for so long.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q In terms of a time limit to investigations, do you see anything that would legally stop or prevent that?

Hilary Meredith:

I think that part 2, on the time limit, should be taken out and scrapped completely. It is the time limit for the procedure. It went on too long, with multiple investigations. We have not got our system right there. In fairness, the decision in the Al-Skeini case that opened the floodgates to the Human Rights Act applying overseas, outside our territory, took us all by surprise. It took the MOD and everybody by surprise. We were not geared up for the consequences of that.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q The presumption not to prosecute always seems like a strange thing. It is like investigating you for burglary, but saying in advance that we are going to make sure we are not going to prosecute you. What are your views on that? Is that legally possible?

Hilary Meredith:

I worry that it is not, actually. I think the Bill will have a rough passage if that part is not tailored slightly. There is a presumption not to prosecute where the allegations of crime arise out of a compensation cheque carrot being dangled, but in the majority of these cases the MOD are paying compensation. Payment of £145,000 was made to the father of the drowned boy in Major Campbell’s case, indicating in Iraq that there was guilt there. Why was that payment was made, who authorised it and why was it so much—it is a huge amount of money—when he was exonerated completely? Some 4,000 allegations of criminal activity under IHAT were completely dismissed, without a single prosecution. Why was the MOD paying out compensation?

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q I might be able to answer some of that. Partly it was a cultural thing in Iraq. In the early days, the Americans and others were seen to be paying money out for car accidents and other things. It got to a situation where the MOD copied that and made compensation offers in the field. There were cultural issues that paying money somehow drew a line under the issue. It was partly related to the insurgents and trying to track that as well. It was possibly well intentioned, but that is the consequence of what you say.

Hilary Meredith:

I think those payments fuelled the allegations of crime. Maybe there should be a review of why large amounts of money are paid in compensation when there is no guilt there.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

When you refer to the Human Rights Act, are you referring to upholding in the ECHR as opposed to the Court of Justice at the European Union? I find that interesting, given that the EU Court of Justice does not accede to the European Court of Human Rights or acknowledge all of its remit. The EU Court of Justice ruled that it had the right over rulings of the European Court of Human Rights, which is a separate entity. Did we then adopt the European Court of Human Rights ruling as sacrosanct and did we go on with that, prosecuting people in a specific way? Is that what we did?Q

Hilary Meredith:

I am not quite sure I understand the question.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Q The EU Court of Justice has decided that it has jurisdiction over the European Court of Human Rights in terms of the Lisbon treaty and other national security elements. Why did we go backwards and adopt the European Court of Human Rights, and hold ourselves to that level? Is that where things went awry?

Hilary Meredith:

I think there are two issues. The Human Rights Act civil cases were brought for abuse and detention. When you look at the charge sheet, there are masses—hundreds—just as abuse and detention. The civil human rights were brought by the Iraqi civilians against the Ministry of Defence. That, then, culminated in human rights criminal activity against individual members of the armed forces. Which takes precedent? I think you will have to ask a constitutional lawyer, but my concern is that if we are putting time limits on the Human Rights Act 1998, I am not sure if in the UK we have the power or authority to do that. A constitutional lawyer would be able to advise you better.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Q What about the national security element of the person’s defence? Who was there to make that national security defence for the armed forces personnel that was being prosecuted? Many of the things they were asked to do were a result of a national security issue, so who was there to defend them in terms of the national security element?

Hilary Meredith:

No, there was nobody there to help them.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Q So for a whole aspect of what they were being prosecuted on, there was no information and no knowledge being shared.

Hilary Meredith:

No, and I think one of the issues that the members of the armed forces have is that they have to step out of the military environment into civvy street and find a civilian lawyer or even know that they are allowed to find a civil lawyer, there was no information there for them. That is why I am suggesting there should be an independent civil advocate from the Bar Council or the Law Society with criminal knowledge to help them.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Q I do not know what your feelings are, but the European Court of Human Rights also uses the primary method of judicial interpretation as a living instrument, as a current-day interpretation of events and modern-day facts, where you are not taking into consideration national security, armed forces personnel or procedure. You are not taking the wider NATO or other alliances that you are entering. They are just taking it on the modern-day interpretation. Would you say that that had an effect on how people in service have been or were prosecuted?

Hilary Meredith:

I do not know. I am not a criminal lawyer, but I think that many of those—imagine that you are completely innocent and you are accused. First, there are so many different laws now that affect you on the battlefield, so many different conventions, and then throw in human rights as well. It is a difficult, complex scenario.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

I was reading your discussion points and I was interested to read that the majority of lawfare cases arose out of compensation claims brought by Iraqis and Afghans. That opened the floodgate, which paved the way for lawfare civil compensation claims. Can you expand on that? Can you give the Committee some idea of the numbers we are looking at? How many criminal allegations, how many prosecutions, and how many were false?Q

Hilary Meredith:

Going back to the Al-Skeini case: the decision that opened the door for human rights in a foreign territory where we had control, and the situation where we had control was detaining prisoners. Of those who claimed civil compensation—I keep using Major Campbell’s case. That was not in detention but that was somebody who was said to have drowned in a river. These prosecutions just go on and on. I have forgotten the question.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

Q It was numbers. I am looking for statistics.

Hilary Meredith:

As a result of those civil claims that were brought—I do not know how many civil cases were brought against the Ministry of Defence; it would be interesting to know—they led to over 4,000 accusations of crime under the IHAT team, which happened to be investigating. Of those 4,000, there was not a single prosecution.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

Q How many of those were false?

Hilary Meredith:

I understand that, out of the 4,000, there were possibly 30 worth investigation. Of those 30, it was whittled down to around five, and of those five, there was insufficient evidence to say whether there was any issue or not. Somewhere along the way, somebody decided that the British military were “rotten to the core” and they were not given a chance, so they were almost guilty before being proven innocent. That is where the presumption against prosecution is so important.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Q What help are personnel given when they are accused?

Hilary Meredith:

There are two scenarios, depending on whether you are still in service or you are a veteran. If you are a veteran, there is nothing—there is no chain of command. A number of times, the MOD said to me that veterans can go and see the chain of command, and I say that they are retired and are veterans, so there is no chain of command, or their commanding officer has retired. Who do they contact? If you are in service and have a good commanding officer, you can go and seek help through them. I know that the Army legal services tried to help in some instances, but I think there is a conflict of interest with the Army legal services protecting the Ministry of Defence and trying also to protect individuals.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q Hilary, you talked about an advocate, and obviously people who have been falsely accused need redress, in terms of getting their name cleared. Do you think there is an opportunity, particularly with veterans—you might be able to do it for serving personnel as well—to give responsibility to the armed forces ombudsman to review cases once they have actually concluded if people feel that they have been ill-treated, in terms of malicious prosecutions or delays in investigations, for example?

Hilary Meredith:

That is one thing I considered. The remit of the ombudsman would have to be extended to do that. To look into 4,000 falsely brought accusations is a big job. Whether the ombudsman has the resources and the remit would have to be looked at, but I think that is a good idea.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Q Even if we stay it for current cases, could that responsibility be given to the ombudsman for future cases?

Hilary Meredith:

If their remit is extended and they could cope with the volume, yes, definitely. My idea is for an independent person, which the ombudsman is, or somebody from the Bar Council or the Law Society, or even a panel appointed on a rota basis that could assist.

Photo of Joy Morrissey Joy Morrissey Conservative, Beaconsfield

Q Hilary, do you agree that it is impossible to actually reach a fair verdict if you do not have the national security background or the military files on what was decided at the time? If that is restricted information—some of those documents may be classified for several years or decades—how is the service person supposed to defend themselves if they do not have that level of information?

Hilary Meredith:

I agree; it is extremely difficult. When I am putting forward an independent person, I am talking about somebody in civvy street, which would be even more difficult. Unless you sign up to the Official Secrets Act and there is a full cards-on-the-table procedure, it would be very hard to defend.

Photo of Stuart Anderson Stuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Q Going back to when you said the time limit is a red herring, how do you think the serving personnel and veteran community will take it if we took your recommendation and removed the time limit from the Bill?

Hilary Meredith:

The time limit, on the face of it, is welcomed by most veterans and military personnel, but the reading of it is a concern. For example, time limits will be introduced if military personnel serving overseas are killed or injured in service. Putting a time limit on that puts them in a worse position than civilians. That alone outweighs the prospect of a time limit on a criminal prosecution. Most criminal prosecutions were done in a timely manner. It was the process that caused them to be historical. Differentiating between the two and sorting out the process is more welcome than actually putting a time limit on an allegation.

Photo of Stuart Anderson Stuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Q What about from the point of knowledge?

Hilary Meredith:

In civilian cases, with the date of knowledge of, for example, of PTSD, you may consider that there is something wrong post service, but it can take up to 15 years for PTSD to actually raise its head. An example of that is the young men and women who came back who have lost limbs. People were surviving triple amputations and went on to do fantastic things; they climbed mountains, they skied, they had great prosthetics—they all did remarkably well. But as the ageing process takes place, they cannot walk on prosthetics; they become more wheelchair-bound, they put on weight, the Invictus games is not available to them, and that is when PTSD sets in. PTSD is not just the diagnosis; it is the date you realise it is connected to service, and 15 years down the line it can be difficult to differentiate between, “Yes, there is something wrong with me,” and, “Ah, but it’s also connected to service.” It is the causation issue—the service caused the PTSD.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

Thank you, Hilary. With that, we have reached the end of the time period that was allocated for your evidence. On behalf of all the members of the Committee, we are very grateful to you for the evidence you have given and for bearing with us and the logistics we have to follow to comply with social distancing. Thank you very much for your evidence.