A five-year time limit on bringing prosecutions against soldiers and veterans who have served abroad – except in “exceptional circumstances” – is to be imposed under legislation introduced by the government.
Clauses in the overseas operations (service personnel and veterans) bill would protect serving and former military personnel from what the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, claimed was a “vexatious” cycle of claims and re-investigations.
The new regulations, revealed on Wednesday, introduce a “presumption” that once five years have elapsed from the date of an incident, it would be “exceptional” for prosecutors to decide that a serving or ex-soldier should be prosecuted for alleged offences on operations outside the UK. Any prosecution would require the consent of the attorney general before it could proceed.
The latest Ministry of Defence initiative follows intense political debates over long-running investigations into former soldiers. By dealing with those who have served outside the UK, and therefore excluding British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland from the proposed legislation, the five-year limit could be help defuse the MoD and Northern Ireland Office’s inter-departmental disputes over the legacy of the Troubles.
Introducing the time limits, Wallace said: “For decades the men and women of our armed forces have been faced with the prospect of repeated investigations by inquest and police, despite the vast majority having acted in accordance with the rule of law and often at great personal risk.
“That is why the government will today legislate to protect our veterans against repeated reinvestigations where there is no new and compelling evidence against them and to end vexatious claims against our armed forces.”
Johnny Mercer, the minister for defence, people and veterans, added: “This package of legal measures will reduce the unique pressure faced by personnel who perform exceptional feats in incredibly difficult and complex circumstances.
“This important next step has gone further than any other government before to protect military personnel who put their life in jeopardy to protect us.”
Last week Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin QC, suggested that a specialist judge should decide whether prosecutions against British soldiers should go ahead and supported the idea of a statute of limitations.
Even the prominent human rights lawyer Martyn Day, of the London law firm Leigh Day, has in the past backed a statute of limitations to prevent prosecution of military veterans for less serious historical offences. The proposals are nonetheless likely to be scrutinised carefully by human rights groups.
The MoD says military operations in Iraq resulted in nearly 1,000 compensation claims against the department for unlawful detention, personal injury and death. There were also approximately 1,400 judicial review claims against the MoD seeking investigations and compensation for a variety of alleged human rights violations.
The new law will also require a court to consider the operational context when deciding whether to extend the normal time limits for bringing civil claims for personal injury or death and for bringing claims under the Human Rights Act in connection with military operations overseas.
An “absolute maximum of six years” time limit would also be imposed for bringing civil claims in connection with overseas operations.
Future governments will also be “compelled to consider derogating from the European convention on human rights in relation to significant overseas military operations” – a proposal that has been raised before.