Overseas Operations Bill – Government defeated in House of Lords

The Government has been defeated in the House of Lords over key aspects of the Overseas Operations Bill.

An amendment to the Overseas Operations Bill supported by Lord Stirrup passed by 300 to 225 last night, rejecting the proposed six-year time limit on civil claims being brought by current and former service personnel against the MoD.

Peers said war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture should all be excluded from a presumption that allegations will not be prosecuted after five years, unless there are exceptional circumstances. The House of Lords backed the changes by 333 votes to 228, a majority of 105, a move to ensure those offences are not covered by the proposed legislation, which is aimed at protecting UK personnel serving overseas from vexatious battlefield claims.

However, the House of Commons still has the power to reject or suggest additional amendments to those proposed by the Lords as early as next month.

Commenting on developments, Hilary Meredith, Chair of Hilary Meredith Solicitors and Visiting Professor of Law and Veterans’ Affairs at the University of Chester said:

“The real issue lies at the heart of the MoD and its failure to identify and eradicate fraudulent civil claims. Human rights lawyers have used ‘agents on the ground’ overseas to drum up claims.

“The MoD has consistently failed to recognise that our troops are innocent until proven otherwise. Service personnel accused in these circumstances need legal, financial and pastoral care.

“The MoD also needs to implement a transparent, fair, timely and thorough system of investigation, putting an end to repeated allegations and prolonged investigations.”

Commenting on the six-year time limit for civil claims, which was rejected by the House of Lords, Hilary added:

“The six-year time limit on civil claims in the Overseas Operations Bill will allow the MoD to manipulate the claims process.

“There is no other scenario similar to the unique circumstances of a military claim for injury or death in service.

“When bringing a military claim, the cards are already stacked in the MoD’s favour.

“The MoD is the employer, the paymaster, the medical provider, the trainer, the investigator and the conclusion maker. It also employs the vast majority of the witnesses while crown immunity makes it exempt from prosecution.”

Continued Hilary: “Anyone bringing a civil claim is reliant on the MoD co-operating while accidents overseas make it even harder to gather evidence.

“The initial investigation will always start with the service medical records.

“Pre-Covid, it was taking between 8 and 10 months to obtain service medical records from the Army Personnel Centre in Glasgow.

“These records, unlike in the Navy and RAF, are not electronic. They’re still maintained and supplied in hard copy. I currently have clients who have been waiting over 18 months for their records.”

Continued Hilary: “The legal system requires a medical report based on a consultation with the injured service person alongside consideration of their medical records.

“The process to access to justice cannot commence until the MoD has provided the relevant medical details.

“In order to address the imbalance in this David and Goliath battle, the legal process must allow for judicial discretion to maintain extensions to limitation for service personal injured or killed overseas.”