Conflict & Justice

British court says dead soldiers’ families can sue government

LONDON, UK — Families of soldiers killed in combat may sue the government for damages, Britain’s highest court ruled Wednesday in a surprising decision that may have profound consequences for future military operations.

The Supreme Court found that soldiers in foreign combat zones are covered by human rights legislation, and that the Defense Ministry has a duty to care for its soldiers that makes it liable for negligence.

The ruling is the result of cases brought by the families of soldiers killed serving in Iraq. By sending the soldiers on patrol with inadequate training and insufficient armor, the families charged, the ministry failed to take reasonable precautions to protect the soldiers’ lives under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Thanks to the Supreme Court ruling, they can now take their cases to trial.

"We have won at last. To be honest we didn't expect to,” said Susan Smith, mother of Private Phillip Hewett, who was killed in 2005 when his Snatch Land Rover was blown up. “The MoD will now have to make sure our soldiers are safe abroad.”

The claimants said they would continue to pursue their cases in court. 

"We want combat immunity thrown out of the rulebook, so instead of soldiers having to sue the Ministry of Defence, the equipment and the training will be in place to stop things like this happening again,” said Debi Allbutt, widow of Corporal Stephen Allbutt, who died under “friendly fire” in 2003.

The Defense Ministry had argued that combat immunity covered the government against charges of negligence in the care of soldiers fighting abroad.

"I am very concerned at the wider implications of this judgment, which could ultimately make it more difficult for our troops to carry out operations, and potentially throws open a wide range of military decisions to the uncertainty of litigation,” Defense Minister Philip Hammond said Wednesday.

"We will continue to make this point in future legal proceedings as it can't be right that troops on operations have to put the European Convention on Human Rights ahead of what is operationally vital to protect our national security."

The ruling could throw open the door to the once-unheard of possibility of legal liability claims by the families of dead and wounded soldiers. However, the justices urged that threat of legal action shouldn’t hamstring the army’s ability to do its job.

“The sad fact is that, while members of the armed forces on active service can be given some measure of protection against death and injury, the nature of the job they do means that this can never be complete,” they wrote

“It is of paramount importance that the work that the armed services do in the national interest should not be impeded by having to prepare for or conduct active operations against the enemy under the threat of litigation if things should go wrong.”