LONDON — The families of several British soldiers killed or injured in Iraq can sue the government for failing to protect them, the country's highest court ruled Wednesday.
The cases have been brought by relatives of soldiers including Cpl. Stephen Allbutt, who died in a "friendly fire" incident involving two Challenger tanks in March 2003; and Pvt. Phillip Hewett, killed in July 2005 when his Snatch Land Rover was blown up.
The Supreme Court ruled that damages claims could be launched under legislation covering negligence and human rights by families who say the Ministry of Defense failed in its duty toward their relatives and did not provide armored vehicles or equipment that could have saved lives.
The government argued that the soldiers were outside British jurisdiction — and so not subject to European human rights law — and that the deaths were covered by the principle of combat immunity, which excludes battlefield operations from legal liability for negligence.
But the Supreme Court rejected both arguments and said all the claims could proceed to trial.
The judges agreed with an earlier ruling that the doctrine of combat immunity should be "narrowly construed" and said it would be premature to reject the claims on that basis at this point.
Jocelyn Cockburn, a lawyer for the families, said the court had established "that soldiers have human rights, and they do remain within the jurisdiction of the U.K., and they don't lose those because they are on the battlefield."
Defense Secretary Philip Hammond said he was "very concerned at the wider implications of this judgment."
He said the ruling "could ultimately make it more difficult for our troops to carry out operations and potentially throws open a wide range of military decisions to the uncertainty of litigation."
"We will continue to make this point in future legal proceedings as it can't be right that troops on operations have to put the (European Court of Human Rights) ahead of what is operationally vital to protect our national security," Hammond said.
Some 179 British personnel died in Iraq between the 2003 U.S-led invasion and the British withdrawal in 2009.