In last week’s Times Law, Lord Burnett of Maldon, the most senior judge in England and Wales, explained how a “remarkable” aspect of “these sombre times” is that “in just a few weeks great strides have been made in the use of technology, which traditionally would have taken much longer”.
And he’s right. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen numerous examples of remote working. Court of Appeal hearings, joint settlement meetings and mediations have all taken place using phone, video and internet platforms.
Although lawyers are embracing new working practices, access to justice for injured service personnel and veterans – those who have given the most in serving our country and suffered life-changing injuries as a result – has, shamefully, ground to a halt.
Soldiers and their families are facing months of uncertainty and financial hardship after the Ministry of Defence effectively shut down its compensation scheme for injury, illness and death during service and stalled payments in cases service personnel and veterans have won at the appeal Tribunal.
The MoD says that due to staff not being able to attend of the offices of Veteran’s UK, the support organisation responsible for administering the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme (AFCS), it is unable to process casework, including requests for new claims, reviews, reassessments and appeals. Solicitors acting for veterans have been told to “refrain from sending emails with respect your client/appellants as this will incur unnecessary cost in these difficult times”.
The Army Medical Agency has also closed, meaning that medical records required to progress military pensions cannot be obtained.
While the government’s refusal to run the AFCS on a remote basis is at odds with the general shift towards technology and virtual hearings, its refusal to make payments in cases where appeals have already been decided is an even greater dereliction of duty.
Our firm recently won an appeal for a veteran with Non-Freezing Cold Injury in all four limbs. He was awarded a substantial sum plus a Guaranteed Income Payment – a tax free, index linked monthly payment.
The appeal was successful on 18 March 2020. Our client is unable to work having been medically discharged from the army. He cannot leave the house. He has a wife who works on the front line for the NHS and three young children at home. With no money he is struggling to pay his bills while his mental health is deteriorating all the time. Veterans UK is not denying the validity of this, or other, awards. It is simply refusing to process any new payments.
With COVID-19 propelling law into the digital age and reshaping its landscape, service personnel and veterans deserve better than for the government’s Armed Forces Compensation Scheme to go missing in action.
A version of this article first appeared in The Times