Justice minister Dominic Raab and armed forces minister Penny Mordaunt are to chair a working party looking at how to prevent “any malicious or parasitic litigation from being taken against our brave armed forces”, Mr Raab revealed yesterday.
The move follows the controversial announcement last week by Prime Minister David Cameron that he wanted to end the “industry trying to profit from spurious claims lodged against our brave servicemen and women who fought in Iraq”.
During justice questions in the House of Commons, Conservative MP Craig Tracey asked what action the government intended to take.
Mr Raab said: “The professionalism of our armed forces is second to none, but we cannot have returning troops hounded by ambulance-chasing lawyers pursuing spurious claims. The justice secretary [Michael Gove] has asked me to chair a working group with the minister for the armed forces to look at all aspects of this – no win, no fee; legal aid rules; time limits for claims; and disciplinary sanctions against law firms found to be abusing the system – so that we prevent any malicious or parasitic litigation from being taken against our brave armed forces.”
Ratcheting up the rhetoric further, fellow Conservative Michael Fabricant said “people in this House will find it despicable that two firms and possibly more are actively seeking – soliciting, in fact – people in Iraq to make spurious and bogus claims against our servicemen overseas”. He asked about newspaper report that the government still intended to give legal aid “to these appalling claims”.
Mr Raab replied: “I am concerned about the way in which the system operates. It is important to say that there is accountability for any wrongdoing, but that does not mean giving lawyers a licence to harass our armed forces. We will look at every angle, including the point about legal aid that he made.”
In his statement last week, Mr Cameron said: “It is clear that there is now an industry trying to profit from spurious claims lodged against our brave servicemen and women who fought in Iraq. This is unacceptable and no way to treat the people who risk their lives to keep our country safe – it has got to end.
“The National Security Council will produce a comprehensive plan to stamp out this industry, including proposals to clamp down on no win, no fee schemes used by law firms, speeding up the planned legal aid residence test, and strengthening investigative powers and penalties against firms found to be abusing the system. We will also take firm action against any firms found to have abused the system in the past to pursue fabricated claims.
“Our armed forces are rightly held to the highest standards, but our troops must know that when they get home from action overseas this government will protect them from being hounded by lawyers over claims that are totally without foundation.”
A briefing paper on legal aid for such claims, published by the House of Commons library on the same day as Mr Cameron’s announcement, said: “It is not yet clear which cases the Prime Minister has in mind when he describes them as ‘spurious’.
“Such cases (if they exist) may not be funded by legal aid; as the Prime Minister’s comments recognise, they may be funded by ‘no win, no fee’ agreements…
“The eligibility criteria for civil legal aid in England and Wales are intended, through the merits test, to weed out those cases with poor prospects of success. The MoJ intends to introduce a residence test which would further restrict the availability of civil legal aid, requiring (with certain exceptions) that people applying for legal aid must have been in the UK for at least 12 months.”
Responding to Mr Cameron, a Law Society statement said: “Solicitors represent both those bringing claims against the state, and those serving in the armed forces, both regular and reserve, as trusted legal advisers. Everyone’s actions are subject to the rule of law – international human rights treaties and the law of armed conflict – and everyone’s fundamental rights must be protected…
“An independent regulatory system already exists to identify and penalise wrongdoing, including any involvement in the fabrication of claims. If lawyers contravene the rules of professional conduct, or act unlawfully, they must be subject to professional discipline. Legal aid contracts already allow the Legal Aid Agency to apply sanctions where there is an official investigation.”