The new Defence Secretary’s announcement that she is to introduce a ten-year cut-off tine for cases brought against service personnel accused of the likes of murder is to be welcomed and should go some way to addressing the concerns of both serving and former service types. However, it does not address the problems of people who served in Northern Ireland as, according to information received to date, it will not apply to purported incidents that that took place in the UK. In addition, and as was discussed in a BBC radio interview with General Sir Mike Jackson this morning, where hard evidence of some wrongdoing is provided, then the time limit will be waived in the interests of justice.
Both of these caveats have the potential to create all sorts of sorts of problems. Lawyers, keen to exploit apparent weaknesses in the law, will make it their business to talk up the differences between the treatment of say, someone in Northern Ireland who claims to have suffered at the hands of the military, with that of an Iraqi or Afghan with a similar story of harsh treatment. It is almost impossible to believe that some international legal body would allow the UK to set up a system which discriminated against foreign nationals in this way without mounting a formal challenge of some sort. It would of course be grist to the legal mill and a nice little earner for someone.
The second caveat, that of “hard evidence” of some wrongdoing, might also be hard to deal with. How can anyone judge whether evidence is “hard” and incontrovertible unless it is taken to court? For that is what the process is all about: namely, testing the truthfulness and relevance of this or that argument or evidence. Does the Defence Secretary have in mind a system whereby a preliminary hearing is set up to assess the worth of any evidence supporting a claim? It is TMT’s understanding that she could not actually do so, for any finding that it might come to would have no actual legal status and would not affect a plaintiff’s rights under the present legal system.
It is important to remember that many of the claims being made against servicemen and women, whether spurious or not, are of a criminal nature. They are not “civil “claims (such as libel or breach of contract). And so any accusations made would have to be considered by the Police and Crown Prosecution Service at some point to determine whether they had any merit and should be pursued in the courts.
It is hard, therefore, to see how such a proposal by Penny Mordaunt could be made to work. That is not to say that it will not, or indeed that some other version of it might not be pushed through Parliament. However, as things stand, we in TMT have doubts about just how easily the ten-year limit might be applied in the face of a combination of a genuine or bogus victim’s claims, supported by what General Sir Mike described as dishonest or “criminal lawyers” out to make money.