Drawing a line: Protecting veterans by a Statute of Limitations Contents


We and our predecessor Defence Committees have long been greatly concerned by the increasing encroachment of litigation into the sphere of military engagements, and by the cycles of investigation and re-investigation of current and former Service personnel for alleged incidents from many years ago.

In the last Parliament, our predecessor Committee and Sub-committee undertook detailed inquiries into the investigations into historic Troubles-related allegations in Northern Ireland and into the Iraq Historical Allegations Team (IHAT). In both cases, processes were identified which were deeply unsatisfactory and entirely unfit for purpose. The Committee warned that, “in adhering to the pursuit of justice and the rule of law, the Government must not lose sight of its moral responsibility and its commitment to the Armed Forces Covenant with those who have served”. Fortunately, IHAT was closed down in 2017—largely as a result of the Sub-committee’s inquiry.

In the case of Northern Ireland, our predecessor Committee recommended that the Government should bring forward legislative proposals to enact a Statute of Limitations, “covering all Troubles-related incidents, up to the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which involved former members of the Armed Forces”, coupled with a truth-recovery mechanism aimed at providing families of the bereaved with the best possible prospect of discovering the truth.

The Government’s response to this report promised to include the above recommendation in the Northern Ireland Office’s legacy consultation, but that promise was broken. This prompted us to look more broadly at the question of how former Service personnel can be protected from the spectre of investigation and re-investigation for events that happened many years, and often decades, earlier. This report is focused on delivering protection for veterans and Service personnel who were previously engaged in operations, not only in Northern Ireland, but around the world.

Throughout our inquiry we have been determined to ensure that justice prevails for veterans and for current Service personnel, whilst ensuring that wrongdoing and criminality are appropriately investigated and punished. At no point has this Committee (or its predecessor Committee in the last Parliament) endorsed amnesties or blanket immunity from prosecution. Those who serve in our Armed Forces are not above the law, but we believe that there is something fundamentally wrong when veterans and current Service personnel can be investigated and exonerated, only then to become trapped in a cycle of endless re-investigation. We warn that this state of affairs risks undermining not only morale within the Armed Forces, and the potential for future recruitment, but also trust in the rule of law.

This report examines the legal frameworks that underpin the work of the Armed Forces at home and abroad, before examining current legacy investigations into Operations Banner, Telic and Herrick, as well as examples from previous campaigns. We conclude that the legal frameworks underpinning the role of the Armed Forces in civil and military operations are becoming increasingly complex and difficult to navigate, particularly in the fog and confusion of conflict.

We also looked at the levels of legal and welfare support provided to veterans and current Service personnel who have been subjected to legacy investigations. We conclude that there appears to be a good level of legal support available to those under investigation. However, we have concerns about the level of welfare support and particularly about the ability of veterans to gain access to it. We recommend that the Government should adopt a more proactive approach—fully utilising the Veterans Gateway and making contact with veterans who may be out of range of their regimental associations and ill-equipped to use online resources.

Finally, we endorse three options for reforming the current system of legacy investigations:

We look forward to scrutinising the Government’s plans in detail when they emerge, but we remind the Government that if the ECtHR seeks to overrule them, then the option will remain of changing the UK’s stance in relation to the ECHR on the lines recommended by Professor Richard Ekins. As we conclude in the report, this problem can be solved—but only by a resolute Government with the determination to do so.

Published: 22 July 2019