Theresa May has told senior commanders that every effort must be made to stop British soldiers from falling victim to “abuse of the legal system” by lawyers representing Iraqis who allege they were victims of war crimes during the occupation of their country.
In a 90-minute meeting with senior commanders, the prime minister said she was determined to protect the armed forces against any “vexatious complaints” relating to the eight-year occupation, during which tens of thousands of British soldiers were deployed to the Arab republic.
It comes amid mounting criticism of the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (Ihat), which was set up to investigate allegations of murder, abuse and torture by British forces. Former soldiers have claimed they have been hounded through the courts on unfounded claims and there are growing calls for Ihat to be shut down.
Reports claim more than 1,200 cases of alleged abuse will be dismissed in the next three months after the collapse of a single law firm, Public Interest Lawyers, after it was stripped of legal aid funding over a failure to come clean about conflicting evidence in a case against British forces.
A Downing Street statement said: “The prime minister spoke of her pride in the UK armed forces, and praised the work they do to keep our nation safe. She said that every effort must be made to prevent any abuse of the legal system, and restated her determination to protect the armed forces against any instances of vexatious complaints.”
But the Law Society, which represents lawyers, hit back, warning that political interference in the legal cases risked undermining “the independence of the legal profession, the rule of law, and the separation of powers which are fundamental to a strong and diverse society.”
Robert Bourns, president of the society, said: “Lawyers must not be hindered or intimidated in carrying out their professional duties and acting in the best interests of their clients within the law. They should not be identified with their clients or clients’ cases.”
He added: “The right to access to justice for all depends on lawyers being able to represent their clients’ cases within our framework of laws, no matter how the client or case may be perceived by the public, media or government. The merits of each case are decided by the relevant court, a function that is and must remain separate from government.”
In Thursday’s meeting with chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, the Ministry of Defence permanent under secretary, Stephen Lovegrove, the heads of the navy, army and air force, and commander joint forces command, May was briefed on “the full extent of current operations”, Downing Street said.
“The PM reiterated the UK’s determination to keep Britain’s streets safe by taking the fight to Daesh in Iraq and Syria and noted that we have conducted more than 1000 airstrikes in both countries, second only to the US,” the statement said.
She also discussed tackling the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, the UK’s role in United Nations operations and Nato, collaboration between British and French armed forces and the Navy’s operations against pirates off the Horn of Africa and in sea lanes in the Gulf.
May said: “The men and women of our armed forces do an incredible job, often making huge sacrifices to keep us safe. Whether taking the fight to Daesh in Iraq and Syria, helping to tackle the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean or providing flood relief at home – we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
“Our armed forces are the best in the world and with the biggest defence budget in Europe and the second biggest in Nato we will continue to play our part on the world stage, protecting UK interests across the globe.”
The Conservative MP Johnny Mercer, a member of the defence select committee, who is heading an investigation into Ihat, has branded the legal pursuit of troops “a national disgrace” and called for the team, which was set up in 2010, to be axed. This month, Mercer claimed that May’s predecessor, David Cameron, had wanted to shut down the investigations, only to be overruled by the attorney general.
The Birmingham-based Public Interest Lawyers had submitted hundreds of allegations of misconduct and unlawful killing by British soldiers, including triggering the £31m Al-Sweady inquiry into the conduct of British troops in a 2004 firefight with insurgents.
However, it was subsequently accused of sitting on evidence that undermined its clients’ claims in that case for a year, before withdrawing their claim. It was criticised when the inquiry’s 2014 report concluded the most serious allegations of war crimes following a 2004 battle in southern Iraq were based on “deliberate lies, reckless speculation and ingrained hostility”.
It was announced in August that the firm would no longer receive public funding after the legal aid agency ruled it had breached contractual requirements.