How investigations into military personnel are handled is to be examined by a judge-led review, the government has announced; the inquiry will work in tandem with a proposed law currently before Parliament aimed at ending “vexatious” legal claims, according to the Ministry of Defense.
The bill, promised in the Conservative election manifesto, would strengthen legal protections for overseas troops from repeated investigations.
The Department of Defense announced on Oct. 13 that it was additionally launching a review into “into how allegations of wrongdoing are raised and investigated” in the military.
“Nobody wants to see service personnel subjected to drawn-out investigations, only for the allegations to prove to be false or unfounded,” said Defense Secretary Ben Wallace in a statement. “This review, which will run in tandem with our Overseas Operations Bill and build on the recommendations of the Service Justice System Review, will help future-proof investigations and provide greater certainty to both victims and service personnel.”
“At the same time, credible allegations against those who fall short of our high standards must be investigated quickly and efficiently,” he added.
The review will not probe past investigations, prosecutorial decisions, or reopen historical cases.
The Overseas Operations Bill will go through to the Committee stage tomorrow in parliament. The Labour party whipped its MPs to abstain from voting at first reading.
The bill has been criticised by some rights lawyers and advocates, such as Amnesty International, as well as some former military officials and the Law Society. and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.
The criticisms mostly focus on the bill’s proposal to create a five-year window for prosecutions.
In justifying the new law, the government has highlighted the number of legal claims made against troops in recent years, including some 1,000 compensation claims in Iraq alone.
A team set up to investigate historic allegations in Iraq was closed in 2017 after seven years without a successful prosecution.
The government says the new law sets out a so-called triple-lock against unfounded multiple claims.
First, it creates a five year limit on prosecution for offenses overseas, which can be overridden on exception only by the Attorney General, or Advocate General in Northern Ireland.
Second, it introduces time limits on civil claims.
Thirdly, the new law places a duty on the government to consider “derogating from the European Convention on Human Rights in relation to significant overseas military operations.”
The bill does not apply to Northern Ireland and the stationing of troops during the Troubles.
Some former high-level military officials and veterans have welcomed the intent behind the bill, but said that it may undermine claims by troops against the defense department, and may undermine the legitimacy and reputation of the military overseas.
Michael Clarke, former director of the Royal United Services Institute said that aim of the bill was “very clear and entirely laudable,” and said that morale had been affected “as some individuals have had their lives turned upside down by open-ended investigations that dogged them, even years after their service,”
However, he notes that some critics say the bill may leave some personnel more vulnerable to prosecution. “The problems need to be addressed from the other end of the process—on the battlefield rather than in the courts,” wrote Clarke. “The Bill distracts attention from the reality that the military got itself into so many legal scrapes in Iraq and Afghanistan because its own battlefield investigation procedures were sub-standard.”