Relatives can sue over UK troops' Iraq deaths

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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.

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

The widow of 35-year-old Stephen Allbutt, plus wounded soldiers Daniel Twiddy and Andrew Julien, brought claims over a "friendly fire" incident in March 2003, when their tank was hit by another.

They 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 were 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 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.

"We are extremely pleased with the decision," said Shubhaa Srinivasan, a lawyer from the Leigh Day firm which represents all the claimants in the tank incident.

"The highest court in the land has now ruled the MoD, as employer, must accept that it owes a duty of care to properly equip service personnel who go to war."

She said it was often left to the soldiers themselves to buy equipment to protect their own lives.

"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."