MOD / Army Assistance
The MOD are caught squarely in the middle on this issue. On the one hand, they are the Government department responsible for defence and the Armed Forces and on the other, they are part of the Government which must fulfil its obligations under the various peace agreements in respect of Northern Ireland.
The MOD department with responsibility for the legacy investigations is the Directorate Judicial Engagement Policy (DJEP). On an official level DJEP provides a central source of expertise, knowledge and guidance on judicial engagement policy, inquests, disclosure and public interest immunity issues. DJEP also brings coherence to MOD's engagement with courts and tribunals and works to minimise the impact that judicial challenges may have on the MOD's reputation and its ability to mount and conduct discretionary military operations.
Our understanding of DJEP's position on the legacy investigations is as follows. The MOD will, wherever appropriate and practicable, treat veterans who are required to give evidence in the same way as serving staff would be treated. The Veterans Welfare Service, a part of Veterans UK, is able to offer welfare support to veterans who may require it in connection with legal proceedings relating to matters arising out of their service or employment in the MOD. This may include referral to more specialised services in cases of severe anxiety. The sponsoring unit will work with the Front Line Commands (i.e. the Service in which the Veteran originally served), who will provide funding, and the Veterans Welfare Service, to agree funding arrangements. The point of contact at Veterans UK can be contacted at this email address - DBSVets-VWS-BusDev-C1@mod.uk
In "process" terms:
- Where there is no conflict of interest between the MOD and the individual, the individual is represented by the same legal team as that used by the Department.
- Where there is a conflict, the individual can seek separate representation, although in terms of levels of funding the Department will only fund representation at the level the MOD would usually pay for - if the individual wants to choose their own Counsel who is more expensive, then they are responsible for plugging the financial gap.
- In terms of instruction the MOD use the Northern Ireland Crown Solicitors Office to instruct Counsel in Northern Ireland.
In terms of general support, Army Personnel Support Group/38X in particular are leading with the Army's engagement on legacy Northern Ireland matters - this includes liaison with Regimental Colonels/Secretaries who should be on board with Northern Ireland matters as they are one of the enablers to this process working. DJEP oversees this work as they are responsible to the Secretary for State for matters relating to Coroners.
In terms of welfare support, DJEP effectively wraps a 'protective set of arms' around any veteran who becomes involved in the inquest process; this includes booking flights, accommodation, covers food costs and offering to 'close-host' individuals throughout their time in the Province. There are also extra security measures that can be put in place if an individual is granted anonymity and/or screening when they give evidence (a lot of veterans have not been back to the Province since their operational tour(s) so there is a high degree of anxiety and stress involved when they face the prospect of returning to Northern Ireland). The main message is that the MOD will ensure that a witness is able to give their evidence free from any worries about finance/travel/security, and will be supported every step of the way; the MOD does take its responsibilities to the veteran community very seriously but at the same time the MOD must ensure that it fulfils its legal obligations to the inquest process.
This is underpinned by the Armed Forces Covenant which is a promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly. It binds the government to a duty of care for members of the armed forces and their families. More details on this can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/armed-forces-covenant-supporting-information#covenant-for-veterans
Every unit or regiment in the Army has an association. These associations are not part of the Army, the MOD or the Government and are often charities in their own right. They generally exist to provide comradeship, support and, often, welfare to veterans.
Some associations are very knowledgeable about the legacy investigations and even if you are not a member of your particular association or are just a passive member, you should contact them regarding your situation. They may be able to provide a lot of support including relevant experience, welfare/emotional support and potentially financial support.
We understand that RHQs have received directions from the MOD regarding legacy investigations. RHQs are part of the Army and generally run by the Regimental Colonel, Regimental Adjutant and Regimental Secretary. The first two posts are filled by serving officers, the latter by a retired officer. Depending on the nature of the relevant RHQ and your knowledge of the people holding those posts they could provide assistance. But do be cautious as they are caught in the middle - carrying out MOD directions/policy on the one hand and helping veterans on the other. If the Police have already made contact with you it is probably worth your while contacting your old RHQ to obtain further assistance, hopefully in the form of finance via the MOD.
Most units and regiments have a related charity. These are independent charities designed to provide support to veterans of the regiment amongst other activities. Some charities have significant funds and may well be willing to support you in the event that the MOD do not or there is a shortfall. They are definitely worth contacting at an early stage.
If you do need legal advice the starting point is usually a search on the internet for a firm of Solicitors which specialise in criminal law. There are even some law firms which specialise in advising serving members of the Armed Forces and veterans on incidents which occurred during operation service.
Bear in mind that Solicitors charge by the hour. It is important to establish fees upfront which should be confirmed in the engagement letter which you have to sign prior to retaining their services. Your law firm will be able to advise on access to legal aid and hopefully help with securing financial assistance from the MOD. Ideally you want the MOD to be paying the law firm direct on your behalf leaving you with no invoice or liability to pay.
In the UK (excluding Scotland and Northern Ireland), legal aid is there so that individuals can get financial support to help meet the cost of legal advice. Individuals generally need to demonstrate that:
- Their case is eligible for legal aid;
- Their problem is serious; and
- They cannot afford to pay for legal costs.
Being accused of a crime is an example of where you could get legal aid.
More information in respect of legal aid in the UK (including the financial levels that determine if one is eligible to qualify for legal aid) is set out in the following links: https://www.gov.uk/legal-aid https://www.gov.uk/guidance/criminal-legal-aid-means-testing https://www.gov.uk/guidance/work-out-who-qualifies-for-criminal-legal-aid
More detail on legal aid in England - https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/law-and-courts/legal-system/taking-legal-action/help-with-legal-costs-legal-aid/#h-legal-aid-for-criminal-cases
As mentioned, legal aid rules are different in Northern Ireland. Getting criminal legal aid depends mainly on whether it is 'in the interests of justice' that you are legally represented. Full details are set out in the following links: https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/topics/legal-aid and https://www.justice-ni.gov.uk/articles/criminal-legal-aid
If you receive a summons to appear before a Magistrate you should at once contact a solicitor who will be able to advise you. If you are held in custody, you should request that the police communicate with the solicitor of your choice. If you do not know the name of a solicitor, the police station will have lists of solicitors willing to attend. All advice and assistance from a solicitor at a police station or holding centre under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1989 (PACE) is free.
Unlike the other legal aid schemes, legal aid in criminal court proceedings has no specified financial eligibility limits, but the court must be satisfied that your means are such that it is desirable in the interests of justice that you be granted legal aid.