Immunity for Soldiers — [Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:45 pm on 20th May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney 6:45 pm, 20th May 2019

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I congratulate my hon. Friend Damien Moore on leading this extremely important and topical debate.

I always speak with some trepidation in debates such as this. I cannot speak with the authority of Jim Shannon, my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith or my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) or for Wells (James Heappey), who have been there and experienced it. In fact, I am afraid I am one of the lawyers of whom various hon. Members have spoken. However, I venture to say a few words simply to make the point that the abhorrence of lawfare is not confined to those who have served or are serving, but extends also to lawyers.

I am a barrister. Lawyers—those who serve at the Bar—have an honourable profession. They speak for people who cannot speak for themselves. They often speak for the downtrodden—people who need to be listened to but are not listened to at all. Members of the Bar are fiercely independently minded. They will say things that are not popular, and they will argue for causes for which no one else wants to argue. But sometimes they are put in the position of having to prosecute law, or defend law, that is wrong. When law is wrong, it is the job of Ministers to act and of Parliament to approve; the lawyers are put in the wrong position, and it is for us in this place to act. So it is in this case. The law needs adjustment to right this great wrong.

I feel very strongly about this matter, albeit from a different perspective from those who have spoken so movingly. I first came across this aspect of lawfare in 1993, when Lee Clegg, who was mentioned earlier, was on trial for murder. I was about 14 and, being probably an uppity little fellow, I wrote an essay saying how unjust I thought it was that someone who had made such a narrow decision in such trying circumstances was being tried for murder.

Of course, that was a highly controversial case. I will explain why I say that. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham for giving me his yellow card, upon which that case turned. Article 5 reads:

“You may only open fire against a person:

a. if he is committing or about to commit an act LIKELY TO ENDANGER LIFE AND THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO PREVENT THE DANGER. The following are some examples of acts where life could be endangered, dependent always upon the circumstances”.

The third of those examples is

“deliberately driving a vehicle at a person and there is no other way of stopping him.”

The issue of driving at a person was the point on which the Clegg trial turned. That is an incredibly narrow distinction. That is why the case was so controversial at the time, and why it remains controversial to this day. The court was dealing with someone who at the time would have been in his teens or early 20s and under enormous pressure. My understanding of the case is that he fired shots as the car approached, which would not have been subject to action, and then a nanosecond later fired a shot through the rear windscreen, which sadly killed somebody. That was the point upon which the case turned.

Those who have served may well say, “The rules are what they are, and you have to accept and work within the rules.” Of course I entirely hear that. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wells pointed out, if it is difficult for someone to make that incredibly narrow distinction at the time, when they are frightened, under enormous pressure, young and inexperienced, how much more difficult is it 50 years later for them to remember how they felt and the reason they acted as they did?

Everyone should be clear. Neither I nor anyone else in this House is saying that servicemen should be above the law, but there is no moral equivalence whatsoever between servicemen who are involved in an unplanned incident—and who are sent to do a job, to protect people and to do their duty—and terrorists, who set out to do none of those things and who maim and murder. No one suggests that servicemen should be above the law. They do not want carte blanche to do whatever they like; they want recognition for the incredibly difficult and trying circumstances faced by servicemen who are young, inexperienced, frightened and under severe pressure, including having to make split-second decisions.