Court rules relatives can sue over British soldier deaths

LONDON (AFP) - Relatives of British soldiers killed while fighting in Iraq can sue the government for negligence and claim damages under human rights law, the Supreme Court in London ruled on Wednesday.

Lawyers for the family members, who can now proceed to trial, said the ruling means the Ministry of Defence owes a duty of care to properly equip service personnel who go to war.

Ms Debi Allbutt, who had brought one of the claims over the death of her 35-year-old husband Stephen in March 2003, said she "jumped up and down with joy" when she heard the news.

"We've proven they (the government) owe a duty of care, and they can no longer hide behind the idea of combat immunity - the soldiers have a right to life under human rights law," she said.

She added: "If they properly equip the armed forces and look after the people in uniform better then they won't have to fight these legal battles. That's all we've wanted."

However, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said he was "very concerned at the wider implications of this judgment".

It "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", he said.

The case concerns three sets of claims arising from the deaths and injuries of British soldiers serving in Iraq between 2003 and 2006.

Ms Allbutt brought her claim alongside soldiers Daniel Twiddy and Andrew Julien over a "friendly fire" incident in March 2003.

Her husband and another soldier were killed and Twiddy and Julien were injured when their Challenger 2 tank was hit by another.

The claimants argued that the soldiers were not trained sufficiently and the tanks lacked the technology and equipment that would have prevented the incident.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) had argued for the claims to be struck out on the principle of combat immunity, which excludes liability for negligence for those involved in active service.

But the Supreme Court judges rejected this in a majority verdict.

The MoD also argued it would not be "fair, just or reasonable" to impose a duty of care on the ministry in the circumstances of these cases, but the judges also rejected this.

Another set of claims was brought by relatives of Phillip Hewett, 21, and Lee Ellis, 23, who were killed in two separate incidents in 2005 and 2006 when their lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers hit roadside bombs.

Their lawyers argued that the MoD was obliged under the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) to take preventative measures to protect the lives of the soldiers.

Ministers had argued that Hewett and Ellis were not within Britain's jurisdiction when they died, but this was unanimously rejected by the court.

A third claim, brought by Ellis' daughter Courtney, was based on alleged negligence by the MoD and the Supreme Court said it too could proceed to trial.

Defence Secretary Hammond said army commanders had access to a greater range of protected vehicles since the legal proceedings were begun.

"I welcome the fact that the court has upheld the principle of the doctrine of combat immunity, albeit suggesting that it should be interpreted narrowly," he said in a statement.

But he added: "It can't be right that troops on operations have to put the ECHR ahead of what is operationally vital to protect our national security." Shubhaa Srinivasan, a lawyer from the Leigh Day firm which represented the claimants in the tank incident, said she was "extremely pleased with the decision".

"The MoD argument that if they accept a duty of care it would inhibit decisions on the battlefield or undermine morale and military discipline seems to defy logic," she said.