This morning we have woken up to the news that David Cameron, Prime Minister, has ordered a “major crackdown on abuse by lawyers pursuing soldiers through the courts for simply serving their country and doing their jobs on operations”.
The announcement has given me some relief that at long last, the Government is stepping in to put an end to the seemingly infinite “witch hunt” that has taken place against our service men and women over a number of torturous years.
As a Solicitor in the Military Team at Hilary Meredith Solicitors, who have represented members of the Armed Forces for many years, we have most recently sought to represent the interests of some soldiers who became embroiled in the Al-Sweady inquiry as a result of spurious claims by Iraqis. Unfortunately these soldiers are in the unusual position whereby there does not appear to be any traditional legal action which can be taken to defend their reputations and hold those responsible accountable for their actions.
I am therefore delighted that the Prime Minister appears to be taking the unprecedented action of instructing the Defence Secretary to recover as much of the £31m of taxpayers’ money spent on the Al-Sweady as possible, including the millions paid to law firms involved in the inquiry. It is about time that the UK government redresses the law and stands up for our soldiers who spent years complying with the requirements of the unfounded inquiry whilst facing malicious allegations about their reputation and integrity in a very public arena. Such action is vital so that our troops can feel confident in our justice system.
Through the Armed Forces Covenant the nation has promised that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly. Clearly action needs to be taken by the government to ensure we continue to comply with the Armed Forces Covenant and protect the interests of our servicemen and women.
As the first law firm to sign the Armed Forces Covenant we have campaigned for change to our publicly funded legal aid system for years. At present such unfounded claims are being pursued at the expense of the British taxpayer and under the Human Rights Act 1998. We consider the availability of human rights legislation should ONLY be available to our soldiers and not to the enemy. It is vital that our Armed Forces’ ability to deal with the enemy and respond to threats is not hindered with thoughts of the enemy’s entitlement to our human rights protection and this was not the intention when the legislation was brought into force. Our soldiers have more than enough to cope with on the battlefield without the enemy demanding compensation.
Furthermore foreign claimants use British legal aid for these claims by satisfying a means and merits test. The government’s proposals to speed up the planned legal aid residence test cannot come too soon in my opinion so that only British residents that have contributed taxes to our society are allowed the privilege of publicly funded legal advice.
One concern however is the potential reforms to the “no win no fee” agreements. Whilst our current system is by no means perfect, such funding agreements do provide access to justice for those who cannot afford to pay legal fees and it forces lawyers to only take on claims where there are sufficient prospects of success. When lawyers receive legal aid in the event of losing a claim, there is motivation for them to pursue spurious claims where there is a lack of corroborative evidence.
We hope the government follow through with their proposals and will be closely monitoring the next steps to be taken. We would also be more than happy to assist the government in considering suitable proposals regarding funding of claims given our extensive expertise in representing members of the Armed Forces.