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Article Great Britain: House of Commons Advances Bill to Limit Criminal Prosecution of Veterans for Acts Committed during Overseas Operations

(Oct. 7, 2020) On September 23, 2020, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill received its second reading in the British House of Commons and progressed through to the Committee stage with a comfortable majority. The bill aims to provide certainty for Service personnel and veterans by protecting them from vexatious legal claims for acts that occurred during overseas military operations, government officials said, as Service personnel and veterans are not immune from prosecution for acts that constitute offenses committed when serving overseas.

“Triple Lock” Measures

If enacted, the bill would introduce what the government refers to as a “triple lock” designed “to give personnel and veterans greater certainty that the pressures placed upon them during overseas operations would be taken into account when prosecution decisions for alleged historical offences are made,” according to a House of Commons briefing paper.

The triple lock is comprised of a presumption against prosecuting certain alleged criminal offenses committed five or more years ago during overseas operation by Service personnel and veterans, as reflected in Part I of the bill. The time frame would commence on the date of the incident, unless compelling new evidence was presented. When making a determination that involved the presumption not to prosecute, the prosecutor would be required to consider the following factors, which would effectively move the balance toward not prosecuting:

(a) the adverse effect (or likely adverse effect) on the person of the conditions the person was exposed to during deployment on the [overseas] operations mentioned in section 1(3)(b), including their experiences and responsibilities (for example, being exposed to unexpected or continuous threats, being in command of others who were so exposed, or being deployed alongside others who were killed or severely wounded in action); [and]

(b) in a case where there has been a relevant previous investigation and no compelling new evidence has become available, the public interest in finality (as regards how the person is to be dealt with) being achieved without undue delay

If the prosecutor determined that the circumstances of the case were such that a prosecution should occur, prosecution could only proceed with the consent of the Attorney General. Certain specified criminal offenses, notably sexual offenses, would be excluded from the remit of the bill.

Current Law

The current law provides a three-year limitation period for the commencement of personal injury cases, but the court has the discretion to permit cases after this time limit if it would be equitable to do so. The pending bill proposes to impose a six-year limitation period for the commencement of any civil personal injury or death cases that occur during military operations, which would start from the date the condition became known, for individuals to bring claims against the Ministry of Defence. This would cover medical conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in the case of Service personnel. This six-year limitation period would also apply to human rights claims for damages against public authorities that have acted incompatibly with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Conduct in armed conflict is currently governed by a variety of laws, including international humanitarian law, human rights law, and service law, contained in the Armed Forces Act 2006. This Act provides a system for military justice and covers, among other things, criminal offenses committed by Service personnel in any location, providing that minor crimes should be handled summarily by the Commanding Officer and more serious crimes should be investigated by the Service Police; if appropriate, the Service Prosecuting Authority tries the case in a Courts Martial.

In addition, the courts have interpreted human rights legislation to have extraterritorial effect. These decisions had the effect of applying the European Convention on Human Rights, which was incorporated into the domestic law of the UK by the Human Rights Act 1998, to Service personnel serving in armed combat in overseas operations.

The bill would also compel future governments to consider a derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights for the Armed Forces during any ongoing significant overseas conflicts.

Rationale for Bill

The impetus for the bill stems from an increase in the number of investigations, particularly repeat investigations, and lawsuits filed against members of the armed services and veterans for alleged human rights abuses that occurred during overseas military operations, with most of these arising after the limitation period for the commencement of such cases, according to an impact assessment and research briefing on the measure. The Ministry of Defence has stated that an unprecedented number of compensation claims arose from the conflict in Iraq over allegations of unlawful detention, personal injury, and death, along with an additional 1,400 judicial review claims that have been filed in the hopes of obtaining an investigation and potential compensation for alleged human rights abuses.

The government has reportedly stated that often the foundation for such cases is weak and that only 0.03% of the 295,000 Service personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have been convicted of any offense. It further noted that 70% of cases received by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team, which was set up to review and investigate allegations of Service personnel abusing Iraqi citizens from 2003 to July 2009, were dismissed for having no case to answer. This Team was subsequently replaced by the Service Police Legacy Investigations, which has closed 94% of the cases it has investigated on the grounds of proportionality, or due to a lack of evidence. Additional investigations by other groups into allegations of abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan have reported similarly high numbers of cases that had no case to answer. Ministry of Defense guidance stated that,

[w]hen serving personnel and veterans are subject to repeated investigations, with no new evidence, in connection with historical operations many years after the original events, it has the potential to do great damage to morale, and to undermine not only operational effectiveness, but also our ability to recruit future service personnel.

The Veterans Minister has stated that “[t]his legislation is not about providing an amnesty or putting troops above the law but protecting them from lawyers intent on rewriting history to line their own pockets,” according to the Law Society Gazette.


While the bill is moving through the House of Commons with a comfortable majority, it is not progressing without contention. Eighteen Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) voted against the bill, stating that it could undermine international law and “effectively decriminalize torture and makes it harder for veterans to take legal action against the government or for war crimes to be investigated,” according to news reports.

The Vice President of the Law Society has stated that the bill only benefits the Ministry of Defence, which will be able to time-bar claims against it, and that “[p]roposals to prevent the prosecution of alleged serious offences – including murder and torture – by Service personnel outside the UK would undermine … [the UK’s] reputation and could break international law.” This could also “leave Armed Forces personnel open to prosecution in the International Criminal Court [ICC]” as war crimes are not excluded from the bill, a House of Commons briefing paper noted.

Article 29 of the Rome Statute prevents crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC from being limited by any statute of limitation. While the government has argued the bill is not a statute of limitations, its critics have stated that it has the same effect.

Northern Ireland Troubles Exempted

Ministry of Defence guidance clarifies that, if adopted, this legislation will not extend to those who served in Northern Ireland during “the Troubles.” The government has stated that it intends to “address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland in a way that focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims, and ends the cycle of reinvestigations into the Troubles in Northern Ireland that has failed victims and veterans alike¾ensuring equal treatment of Northern Ireland veterans and those who served overseas.” The proposals for achieving this, incorporating views elicited during a public consultation, moves toward the creation of an independent body with an emphasis on gathering information for families whose loved ones died during the Troubles and helping people to understand the past.

While police investigations and prosecutions are still possible with regard to Northern Ireland legacy issues, the government has noted these will only occur in “cases in which there is a realistic prospect of a prosecution as a result of new compelling evidence.” Any case that does not meet this threshold will be permanently closed, and a report sent to the family of the deceased person.


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Feikert-Ahalt, Clare. Great Britain: House of Commons Advances Bill to Limit Criminal Prosecution of Veterans for Acts Committed during Overseas Operations. 2020. Web Page.

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Feikert-Ahalt, Clare. Great Britain: House of Commons Advances Bill to Limit Criminal Prosecution of Veterans for Acts Committed during Overseas Operations. 2020. Web Page. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.