Overseas Operations Bill – latest update

The Overseas Operations Bill will introduce an absolute six-year time limit on civil actions after consideration of Commons amendments in the House of Lords yesterday.

Throughout the passage of the Bill, one of the most controversial aspects has been restrictions on time limits for serving or retired personnel to bring actions for personal injury or death relating to overseas operations. The Bill limits the court’s discretion on limitation periods and effectively means that veterans could not bring a claim after a six-year time limit.

The government has been forced into significant concessions in other areas of the Bill.

Ministers agreed last week to ensure genocide, crimes against humanity and torture were excluded from future legal safeguards in the Overseas Operations Bill. Facing a further possible defeat on the issue at the hands of peers, the government moved to ensure war crimes are excluded from the presumption against prosecution as well.

Defence minister Baroness Goldie said the government had listened to the “very real concerns” of MPs and peers about exclusions from the future legal safeguards and agreed to rectify this “clear omission” from the legislation.

She said ministers had further reflected on the concerns in both Houses and would table a further amendment to also exclude war crimes.

The government also suffered a defeat on the Bill as peers backed an amendment to provide a statutory duty of care to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations.

Voting was 312 to 243, majority 69, for an amendment backed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

The Bill will now have to return to the Commons where ministers will have to decide whether to use the government’s majority to overturn it.

Hilary Meredith, Chair of Hilary Meredith Solicitors and Visiting Professor of Law and Veterans’ Affairs at the University of Chester, provided evidence to the Drawing a Line: Protecting Veterans by a Statute of Limitations Inquiry in 2019 and has long campaigned for wide-reaching support for those accused of crimes as a result of military operations.

She commented: “Those on duty serving their country deserve and require the full support of the government and MoD when facing accusations arising from military operations. A statutory duty of care would be a major step forward – although it must also apply to veterans who are outside the chain of command and have nowhere to turn.

“We cannot allow those who serve their country to be hung out to dry ever again.”

Turning to the six-year longstop on civil claims, Hilary said: “The six-year longstop gives the MoD the power to manipulate the claims process and deny British troops justice in valid civil claims. It is deeply flawed and will significantly disadvantage those who have served abroad.

“It is totally unacceptable for the Government to deny those who put their lives on the line for our country overseas the same employer liability rights as the UK civilians they defend. It is also a breach of the Armed Forces Covenant. The contradiction here is as clear as day.

“By taking away the court’s discretion on limitation periods, the government is betraying troops who have served overseas and meddling unnecessarily with the justice process.”