The defence secretary has said he is concerned about the “industrial scale” of claims against serving personnel and veterans
The prime minister has said he wants to “stamp out” what he called “spurious” legal claims against British troops returning from war.
David Cameron said ministers had been asked to draw up plans to restrict claims, including by curbing financial incentives for “no win, no fee” cases.
About 280 UK veterans are currently being investigated over alleged abuse by soldiers during the Iraq War.
Lawyers said no-one was above the law, and many abuse cases had been proven.
The Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) was set up to investigate allegations of murder, abuse and torture against Iraqi civilians by UK military personnel between 2003 and 2009.
It has considered at least 1,515 possible victims – of whom 280 are alleged to have been unlawfully killed – and lawyers are continuing to refer cases of alleged abuse.
The head of the inquiry, Mark Warwick, has said there are “lots of significant cases” and that discussions would be held over whether they met a war crimes threshold.
However Mr Cameron has previously said he feared people were being “solicited by lawyers” enticing them into making accusations, and was concerned many of them were fabricated.
‘Hounded by lawyers’
In a statement issued on Friday, Mr Cameron said there was now “an industry trying to profit from spurious claims” against UK military personnel.
“Our armed forces are rightly held to the highest standards – but I want our troops to know that when they get home from action overseas this government will protect them from being hounded by lawyers over claims that are totally without foundation.”
He said he had ordered the National Security Council – a cabinet committee set up by David Cameron which meets weekly to discuss security and defence strategy – to produce “a comprehensive plan to stamp out this industry”.
Plans to be considered by the National Security Council include:
- Curbing the “financial incentives” for law firms to pursue “no win, no fee” claims against military personnel, and the reimbursement of costs that can be awarded through such arrangements
- Bringing forward plans to make it a requirement for claimants to be resident in the UK for at least 12 months in order to be eligible for legal aid. The new “residence test” is due to come into force in the summer
- A “broader legislative package” to strengthen investigative powers and penalties that can be used against law firms found to be “abusing the system” by pursuing claims that are ruled to be fabricated
Number 10 said the measures aimed to stop “lawyers pursuing soldiers through the courts for simply serving their country and doing their jobs on operations overseas”.
The Legal Aid Agency – the department of the Ministry of Justice which provides legal aid and advice in England and Wales – has also been asked to consider whether legal aid arrangements should be temporarily restricted for any firm being investigated for misconduct.
The BBC’s legal affairs correspondent, Clive Coleman, said lawyers had stressed that the the government had agreed financial settlements in hundreds of claims brought against soldiers, and that few cases were legally-aided.
A Number 10 source said David Cameron was “deeply concerned” by the number of “spurious” claims
A spokesman for law firm Leigh Day said Mr Cameron should not challenge the principle that “no-one is above the law, not us, not the British army and not the government”.
He said: “Over the last 12 years many cases of abuse made against the MoD during the course of the occupation of Iraq have come to light and been accepted by the government.
“They include the appalling torture and murder of Baha Mousa in 2003. In addition, the government has paid compensation for over 300 other cases relating to abuse and unlawful detention of Iraqis.
Baha Mousa, seen here with his family, was a 26-year-old hotel receptionist who died in British military custody in 2003
He added: “The vast majority of serving army soldiers do a first-class job in protecting this country but the evidence shows that this is by no means the case for all.”
Leigh Day has been referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal to answer complaints about its handling of legal challenges brought by Iraqi detainees against the Ministry of Defence.
It follows the findings of the 2014 Al-Sweady inquiry, which concluded that claims that British troops had murdered and mutilated Iraqis in custody were “deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility” – although some of the detention techniques used had amounted to mistreatment.
The firm has strongly denied allegations of wrongdoing and said it would “vigorously” defend itself.
In 2011, another inquiry into claims of abuse highlighted the death of hotel worker Baha Mousa in British military custody, and blamed “corporate failure” at the Ministry of Defence for the use of banned interrogation methods in Iraq.
Number 10 said the defence secretary had been commissioned to prepare the ground for seeking “to recover as much of the £31m of taxpayers’ money spent on the Al-Sweady inquiry as possible”, including money awarded to some law firms involved in the inquiry.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has criticised “ambulance-chasing British law firms” who he said were inhibiting soldiers on the battlefield who feared being hauled in front of the courts on their return.
He has argued there is “a strong case” for suspending the European human rights law when sending forces into action overseas.