Hundreds of compensation claims against British soldiers are likely to be abandoned after a controversial law firm accused of “hounding” troops announced that it is closing.
Public Interest Lawyers has spent more than a decade pursuing British soldiers through the courts since the Iraq War and has leveled more than 1,100 claims of maltreatment against them including abuse, torture and murder.
However the firm, based in Birmingham, has now informed clients that it is shutting down just days being barred from receiving public money for ongoing cases after an 18 month investigation by the Legal Aid Agency.
Phil Shiner, the firm’s founder, is under investigation by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal and even faces a possible criminal inquiry by the National Crime Agency over allegations Iraqi civilians were “bribed” to bring claims.
It comes after the £31million Al-Sweady war crimes inquiry into allegations of murder and torture by British soldiers found that claims made by PIL’s clients were “deliberate and calculated lies”.
Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said: “This is the right outcome for our armed forces, who show bravery and dedication in difficult circumstances.
“For too long, we’ve seen our legal system abused to impugn them falsely. We are now seeing progress and we will be announcing further measures to stamp out this practice.”
The closure of Public Interest Lawyers will put both its current and future cases in doubt and result in significant savings for the taxpayers.
Since 2003, the MoD has spent £100million on Iraq-related investigations and compensation, with £44million more earmarked for ongoing compensation claims from Iraqis up to 2019.
A further £55.7million has been set aside for the Iraq Historic Allegations Team to investigate cases up to 2019. Public Interest Lawyers is currently pursuing 187 compensation claims against the Ministry of Defence in the High Court under human rights laws.
It has now informed its clients that the compensation cases can no longer go ahead because it lacks sufficient legal insurance and will close on 31 August.
The firm has advised its them to find other representation, but it is likely that many of the compensation claims will no longer be pursued.
It has also referred 1,108 allegations negligence by British personnel in Iraq to the Iraq Historical Allegations Team for criminal investigation, many of which it was intending to pursue for compensation in the civil courts.
The firm has also pursued soldiers at The Hague – a court that normally tries war criminals.
General Sir Mike Jackson, a former Chief of General Staff, said: “My reaction is one of some satisfaction. I have been of the view for some time that the protestations of Public Interest Lawyers were somewhat dubious.
“Soldiers have been hounded with false accusations and the cost of these cases is pretty outrageous. It’s a terrible waste of public money and the defence budget.”
Earlier this year David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, ordered national security council was told to draw up options to end “spurious claims”, including measures to curb the use of “no win, no fee” arrangements.
Theresa May, his successor, will pursue the plans which are likely to include a requirement that legal aid claimants must have lived in the UK for 12 months. Law firms found to have abused the system could face tougher penalties under the measures being considered.
The Iraq Historical Allegations Team was established in 2010 by Labour in response to allegations of murder, abuse and torture of Iraqis by British service personnel.
When IHAT was launched five years ago, there were just 152 allegations of ill-treatment and unlawful killings. But the latest statistics, published on the Government website, show it is now investigating 1,558 cases, including nearly 288 of unlawful killing.
Earlier this year it emerged than 280 soldiers have been handed letters asking for their involvement in alleged incidents during the war.
Many of them were quizzed on their doorsteps, or on military bases where they are still serving, by taxpayer-funded former police officers.
Despite no convictions, Mark Warwick, a former police officer who heads the unit, says it has been “overwhelmed with cases” and murder charges could result.
A single incident can lead to a serviceman enduring five separate investigations and can last for a decade. They include an initial military inquiry, a summons from IHAT and an appearance before an inquest-style body called Iraq Fatality Investigations.
There is also the prospect of a prosecution at the Hague for war crimes, as well as a potential civil claim.
PIL was instrumental in forcing the Government to hold a £31 million public inquiry into claims that Iraqi farmers were murdered 13 years ago at the Battle of Danny Boy .
The al-Sweady inquiry concluded that the farmers were actually members of a heavily-armed Iraqi militia who had staged an ambush of British troops and that their claims were a product of “deliberate and calculated lies”.
Public Interest Lawyers did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.