A new Armed Forces Bill, which aims to ensure fair treatment for our Armed Forces, is being introduced today (26th January 2021) in the House of Commons.
Unlike the controversial Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which has faced opposition in both Houses of Parliament (not least because of the intended plan to introduce a 6-year limitation longstop on all civil claims which relate to overseas operations being brought by armed forces personnel and veterans against the Ministry of Defence), the Armed Forces Bill is not expected to face the same detailed scrutiny or opposition from the lawmakers.
For constitutional reasons, a new Armed Forces Bill is brought to Parliament every 5 years, but this new Bill is of far wider interest to the military community. It will embed the Armed Forces Covenant into law, thus ensuring that our troops, veterans and their families do not face any disadvantage when accessing certain public services, such as medical care, education and housing. Alma Law are proud signatories to the Armed Forces Covenant and back in 2018, as a fledgling law firm, we received the Bronze award under the employer recognition scheme.
The Armed Forces Covenant
A link to the Armed Forces Covenant is here and I would like to share paragraph 2 with the readers of this blog:
Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.
Part 2 of the Overseas Operations Bill will, if enacted, be in direct conflict with the Armed Forces Covenant. By interfering with the court’s discretion to disapply limitation periods in personal injury claims, an injured soldier or veteran will be at a disadvantage when compared to everyone else. In the words of the Director General of the Royal British Legion, the Bill is about “protecting the MOD, rather than the service personnel”.
For several reasons, not least a fear of suing their masters, some injured troops and veterans contact us for help and advice long after they have been exposed to trauma. For example, those who have suffered psychological damage or hearing loss, and we learn, albeit after a fair amount of investigation, that they have been treated poorly and, notwithstanding the time that has elapsed, a civil claim in negligence against the MOD has merit. Stripping away that individuals right to a fair trial by imposing an exceptional limitation longstop would be unfair and in breach of the Armed Forces Covenant.
The Overseas Operations Bill
The Overseas Operations Bill was debated in the House of Lords on the 20th January 2021. A link to the debate can be found here. My concerns were echoed by several of their Lordships during that debate, specifically:
• Service personnel will have fewer rights than the general public in seeking damages against their employer…surely, this must be a breach of the Armed Forces covenant – Admiral Lord Boyce and a former Chief of the Defence Staff
• It is plain wrong that those who put their lives on the line for Britain should have less access to compensation than the British citizens that they are there to defend – Lord Touhig
• This Bill, I say with deep regret —and understatement—is disappointing, and it would represent disappointingly poor law – The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth
• I am concerned by the relatively short time limits sought to be imposed on the service personnel’s ability to sue the Ministry of Defence – Lord Burnett
The New Armed Forces Bill
Assuming the new Armed Forces Bill is enacted in Spring 2021, then we must expect all government departments, including the MOD, to abide by the Armed Forces Covenant and to treat our injured troops and veterans fairly. In the context of a military accident claim, this can easily be achieved by:
• Cooperating and collaborating by putting the injured soldier/veteran at the centre of the claims process
• Complying with the Civil Procedure Rules – a Defendant, and the MOD is no different, has just 3-months after receiving a letter of claim to send back a decision on liability (this can be as much as 6-months if the accident occurs overseas). We would almost always agree to a request for a little more time but ultimately, no decision, which is the norm, results in more cost and more anguish for the injured soldier/veteran and their families
• Disclosing promptly all relevant documentary evidence
• Agreeing to attempt an early resolution of the case before costs escalate. In most claims, court proceedings ought to be a last resort
Will they, won’t they?
Other aims of the Armed Forces Bill:
• To improve the service justice system, including guidance on how serious crimes committed by service personnel in the UK should be handled, to create an independent body to oversee service complaints and to make the complaints system more efficient
• Flexible working for Reservists
• The extension of posthumous pardons for those convicted of abolished service offences
More information about the Armed Forces Bill can be found here.
26th January 2021
Grant Evatt, the owner of Alma Law, is a former British Army Commando. He has specialised in military accident claims for over two decades and he is an authority in this complex area.