The Government will protect our Armed Forces from persistent legal claims by introducing a presumption to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in future conflicts, the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary have announced.
Over the past decade a series of court judgments have extended the extra-territorial jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights to the battlefield. Military advisers warn that this risks seriously undermining the operational effectiveness of the Armed Forces.
The intention to derogate from the ECHR, if possible in the circumstances that exist at that time, will protect British troops serving in future conflicts from the kind of persistent legal claims that have followed recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan on an industrial scale.
Claims that ECHR rights have been breached drive much of the litigation that the MOD faces which causes considerable personal distress to individual servicemen and women, and costs the taxpayer millions of pounds.
Prime Minister Theresa May said:
Our Armed Forces are the best in the world and the men and women who serve make huge sacrifices to keep us safe.
My Government will ensure that our troops are recognised for the incredible job they do. Those who serve on the frontline will have our support when they come home.
We will repay them with gratitude and put an end to the industry of vexatious claims that has pursued those who served in previous conflicts.
Combined with the biggest defence budget in Europe, the action we are laying out today means we will continue to play our part on the world stage, protecting UK interests across the globe.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said:
Our legal system has been abused to level false charges against our troops on an industrial scale.
It has caused significant distress to people who risked their lives to protect us, it has cost the taxpayer millions and there is a real risk it will stop our Armed Forces doing their job.
This will help to protect our troops from vexatious claims, ensuring they can confidently take difficult decisions on the battlefield. And it will enable us to spend more of our growing defence budget on equipment for them rather than fees for lawyers.
Chief of the Defence Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach said:
Extending the jurisdiction of the European Convention on Human Rights to the battlefield risks seriously undermining the operational effectiveness of UK Armed Forces, so this important announcement is very welcome.
Our Armed Forces will continue to be held to the very highest standards. UK personnel will always be subject to the Law of Armed Conflict - which includes the Geneva Conventions - and to UK Service law - which includes the criminal law of England & Wales.
Credible allegations of criminal behaviour will always be investigated properly, so the work of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) and Operation Northmoor will continue. Those who have been the subject of false allegations will be cleared. But the Service justice system will deal appropriately with anyone who has fallen short of expected professional standards.
I am determined that the Armed Forces should have the confidence and tools to do their jobs effectively on operations, free from the burden of excessive litigation.
Under the plans, it will remain essential that our Armed Forces operate to the highest standards and are subject to the rule of law at all times. They will continue to operate under a comprehensive legal framework in accordance with International Humanitarian Law (the law of armed conflict including the Geneva Conventions) and with Service Law, which includes UK criminal law of England and Wales regardless of where they are serving.
This announcement follows the closure of Public Interest Lawyers (PIL), the firm responsible for filing thousands of claims against the Armed Forces. It will complement the work undertake by the government, to draw up a time limit for future claims, create tough new penalties for firms who engage in vexatious practices and crack down on the no win no fee deals that have been exploited to tout for business.