By: 22 August 2017
Ministry of Defence finally apologises to soldiers’ families over Snatch Land Rover claims

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has apologised to the families of servicemen who were killed in poorly armoured vehicles during the Iraq War – ten years after the families began a legal battle against the Government for providing the servicemen with inadequate equipment.

The battle began after Private Phillip Hewett was killed by a roadside bomb while driving a Snatch Land Rover in Al Amarah in Iraq on 16 July 2005. He was the ninth of 37 service personnel to be killed in the vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan, which came to be known as “mobile coffins”.

The reputation of the vehicles was so bad that Private Hewett had told his mother, Sue Smith, that he was driving a Warrior tracked armoured vehicle rather than the Snatch, so that she would not worry. Prior to this, he had written to his uncle saying that some soldiers had purposely lost their driving licences so that they would not have to drive the Snatch.

For ten years’ civil liberties lawyer, Jocelyn Cockburn, from Hodge, Jones & Allen, has represented the families. During this time the MoD sought to strike out the case, but in 2013 the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the families, in its landmark decision extending the duties owed by the MoD to soldiers on the battlefield under the Human Rights Act 1998.

In finding that British Troops remain within the UK’s jurisdiction when deployed on active service abroad, and so attract the protections of the Human Rights Act, the Supreme Court overturned its own earlier decision in R Smith v Oxfordshire Coroner which was handed down in 2010.

Despite this ruling, the MoD continued to fight the case and refused to accept any criticisms in relation to their use of the vehicles.

Jocelyn Cockburn and her clients were also instrumental in ensuring that the Chilcot Inquiry investigated the issue of Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq. It was immediately after giving evidence at Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry in 2010 that former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, announced that the Snatch Land Rover would be removed from theatre. Last year, the Chilcot Report identified the failure to replace the vehicles with better armoured vehicles as one of the key equipment failings of the Iraq War.

In letters to the Snatch Land Rover families, the Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon, apologised for the MoD’s delay in introducing alternative protected vehicles which could have saved lives.

“I am fully aware of the struggle you have had to bring this matter to Court over the last decade and I recognise this has had a significant impact on you and your family,” wrote Fallon.

“The Government entirely accepts the findings of Sir John Chilcot in the Iraq Inquiry in relation to Snatch Land Rover. I would like to express directly to you my deepest sympathies and apologise for the delay, resulting from the decisions taken at the time in bringing into service alternative protected vehicles, which could have saved lives. I confirm that we have learnt lessons from this. The Government must and will ensure that our Armed Forces are always properly equipped and resourced.”

Jocelyn Cockburn said that the apology had come after the families had had to fight “every step of the way” to achieve justice.

“The Ministry of Defence’s stance of delay-deny-and-defend has caused untold suffering to already grief-stricken families over a needlessly long period,” she said.

“However, I am relieved that their battle is over and genuinely hope that their apology signals a sea-change in the way the MoD seeks to deal with bereaved service families.”

Hilary Meredith, CEO of Hilary Meredith Solicitors and Visiting Professor of Law and Veterans’ Affairs at the University of Chester, accused the Defence Secretary of “plotting to ride roughshod over the courts and our troops”, despite his apology.

“While this long overdue apology will bring comfort to the family, at the same time Michael Fallon is plotting to make the MoD totally unaccountable in the future,” said Meredith.

“Under current proposals, combat immunity ­– which provides an exemption from legal liability for the Ministry of Defence – would apply to all claims brought by those in combat, even procurement decisions made back at Whitehall, where equipment provided to our troops subsequently turns out to be faulty or unsuitable.

“The men and women on the frontline in Iraq knew for two years that the Snatch Land Rovers were unsuitable – and yet the MoD did nothing.  The MoD didn’t fight this case because they believed the Snatch Land Rover was the correct vehicle – they fought it because they wanted the courts to rule that they didn’t owe our servicemen and women a duty of care.”

She argued that with the courts holding firm and ruling against the MoD, Fallon was now attempting to bypass them all together by scrapping the MoD’s duty of care through legislation.

“Both legally and morally, the MoD should not be allowed to legislate its way out of the duty of care it owes to our armed forces,” she added.

“If the MoD, as an employer, can legislate its way out of a duty of care to our armed forces where does this stop?  Will other employers be next?  The Fire Service? The Police Force?  Where will it end?”