Hundreds of Iraqi civilians who allege they were detained and mistreated by British forces have had their claims for damages blocked by the Supreme Court.
The claims were launched in England against the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in what has become known as the “Iraqi Civilian Litigation” after they were prevented from proceeding in Iraq itself, where the armed forces have immunity from legal action.
The claims were given the go-ahead by the High Court in London, but were blocked by the Court of Appeal – a decision which has now been upheld by Supreme Court justices.
The ruling is a massive blow for law firms bringing the cases on behalf of Iraqis. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has previously criticised ‘ambulance-chasing’ lawyers, who have brought a deluge of claims against the MoD – a claim vehemently denied by the law firms involved.
On Thursday, following the judgment, Mr Fallon said: “There is a pernicious industry trying to profit from dubious claims lodged against our Armed Forces years after the alleged incidents.
“We are determined to tackle it and this judgement, which will save the taxpayer millions, is a big step in the right direction. Defence spending should go on defence, not into lawyers’ pockets.”
The MoD has so far paid out almost £20 million in damages in 324 cases. But the new ruling puts in serious jeopardy the chances of any future payouts in more than 600 cases still to be determined by the courts.
The appeal court had ruled the cases were prevented from going ahead because of a time bar imposed under Iraqi law. Although launched in England, all the cases are governed by Iraqi law.
The ruling affects more than 600 Iraqi citizens who allege they suffered unlawful detention or physical maltreatment at the hands of British armed forces who were part of the Coalition forces in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.
Lord Sumption, one of a panel of five Supreme Court justices who considered the latest appeal, said a substantial number of the cases were time-barred in Iraq because they had been brought outside a three-year limitation period imposed by article 232 of the Iraqi Civil Code.
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The Iraqi civilians claimed Iraqi law allowed the limitation period to be suspended because they were impeded from taking action in time by a Coalition Provisional Authority order which gave Coalition forces immunity from being sued in Iraq.
But the Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the argument and upheld the appeal court’s conclusion that the limitation period continued to operate.
Lord Sumption said the Coalition order applied only in Iraq and was not an impediment to “the only relevant proceedings”, which were those launched in England. The limitation period under Iraqi law therefore continued to run.
The legal actions were being brought by Leigh Day, which was referred to the Solicitors’ Disciplinary Tribunal in January over complaints that they touted for Iraqi clients. The law firm strenuously denies the claim and insists it is the victim of a political attack.
A spokesman from Leigh Day said: “The MoD has already settled hundreds of claims by Iraqis in relation to abuse and wrongful detention following the ill fated war of 2003 under the Government led by Tony Blair. A war which will come under close scrutiny in the Chilcot inquiry which will report in July.
“This technical judgment has the result of revising the hurdle that the majority of the remaining cases brought by Iraqi civilians against the MoD will have to get over to enable their claims to be heard in the British courts.
“We remain confident in the merits of the test cases going to trial this summer, brought exclusively against the UK Government over their role in southern Iraq.”
“The High Court will hear two test cases this summer, the outcomes of which may well lead to resolution of the remaining claims.
“Today’s technical judgment creates an additional hurdle for the Claimants to overcome in seeking justice for their treatment, but does not of itself deny them access to the UK courts.”