Sue Smith: 'I'll never walk away from this battle'
A mother's eight-year fight for justice for her dead soldier son has left a legacy – human rights protection for every serviceman and woman. Terri Judd meets Sue Smith
Sue Smith barely blinked as the Supreme Court announced last week that she had won a landmark legal victory for soldiers' human rights. The care worker from Tamworth, Staffordshire, appeared utterly unfazed as she walked out of court and into Parliament Square to brave a barrage of cameras.
Back home, sitting in the garden of the family council house, a very different woman is speaking from the composed campaigner on television. "I felt he was standing here," she says, her voice trembling with tears as she taps her left arm. "Phillip was standing by my shoulder."
Eight years after a roadside bomb tore through the Snatch Land Rover Private Phillip Hewett was driving, killing the 21-year-old alongside two fellow soldiers, his mother still struggles to talk about him without welling up.
It is a rare insight into the burden of grief carried by a woman who has made a point of maintaining a dignified façade throughout her seemingly endless legal battle.
"I could stand there and rant and rave but I would just look like a nutter," says the 51-year-old. "For me, this fight has always been about the loss of a son, not the loss of a soldier. People forget my son was murdered."
For six years, she has repeatedly hit brick walls in her search to expose the injustice of her son's death. She has been fobbed off by the Government, patronised by politicians and stalled by courts. One army officer admitted to her in private that he had been asked by the Ministry of Defence whether there was any way of "shutting that woman up".
"They treated me like an idiot. They thought I was beneath them, that if they kept pushing me for long enough I would eventually go away. It is not in my nature to be bullied. The more they pushed, the more I pushed in the other direction," she says.
Last week she suddenly found some very powerful allies when justices at the highest court in the land granted her a victory when they agreed that soldiers, even on operations, should be covered by human rights legislation.
The truth is that when her success finally came, she did not feel triumphant, simply stunned.
"I thought I had misheard. This doesn't happen to me. I don't win anything. I get the empty lucky bags," she says. "I know what we accomplished but it doesn't make you feel any better. Every day is another anniversary. Phillip's birthday is coming up."
What she accomplished was a legacy for her son: human rights protection for every serviceman or woman. Until now, soldiers have not been covered by Article Two of the European Convention on Human Rights – which protects the right to life – once they step off a British base in a war zone. But last week, the judges ruled that protection should be extended to the field of operations.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond immediately responded with a damning verdict: "I am very concerned at the wider implications of this judgement, which 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."
“Turncoat,” Mrs Smith says with a smile, remarking that Mr Hammond was among the Tories that supported her desire to secure better equipment until they came to power.
His assessment, legal experts point out, is inaccurate. As Lord Hope was at pains to explain in the summary of the ruling, it would not affect decisions made on the battlefield or even at a command level, but only those taken in preparation. The ruling will simply place a responsibility on the state to ensure proper training and equipment.
It was an amazing triumph for a woman who knew nothing of the law, let alone challenging the government, eight years ago when her son, a soldier with what was then the 1st Battalion, the Staffordshire Regiment, came home on leave in the summer of 2005. At 6ft 5in, Phillip Hewett was a larger-than-life character in many ways. He was a cheerful, lively young man, "in your face in the best possible way". During what would turn out to be some of his last days alive, he played football with his seven-year-old sister and took his grandfather, in his seventies, out to a nightclub. His last words to his mother were: "I will be back before you know it."
Days later – on his stepbrother's 18th birthday – he was killed. It was a tragedy that ripped apart a family of five siblings and step-siblings.
His mother, the daughter of one soldier and the widow of another, knew about the Snatch Land Rover and how vulnerable it was to bombs. It would eventually be withdrawn from combat operations. So she began asking questions, writing letters to the Ministry of Defence.
"I received this letter that said better people than me were making decisions and to leave it to the professionals. How can you talk like that to someone who is just asking questions about their son?"
When the inquest took place 18 months later, Mrs Smith got none of the answers she had hoped for. The five-day hearing she had expected lasted just three hours. The family received the MoD disclosure only the night before, much of it redacted. "I had to sit and read the autopsy report, how much his brain weighed and what his stomach contents were because no one would tell me how he died," she says.
Angry that she did not know, and still does not know, the full details, Mrs Smith approached the noted human rights lawyer Jocelyn Cockburn, who decided to take a chance on her.
"She said to me, 'I don't know, this is a difficult case.' And she was right. It has been fight after fight after fight," says Mrs Smith.
Now joined by the families of Private Lee Ellis, 23, of the Parachute Regiment, and Irish Guardsman Lance Corporal Kirk Redpath, 22, who also died in Snatch Land Rovers, she brought a claim under Article Two of the ECHR.
But last week, the Supreme Court not only refused the Government's appeal against the compensation cases but also allowed Mrs Smith's human rights claim, paving the way for all the families to sue the MoD.
It was a hard-fought victory for a woman whose day job is caring for the elderly. She has grown used to feeling alienated by people around her who cannot understand why she has doggedly pursued this legal battle. But she is determined to force the MoD to release all the details of her son's death.
"It is nothing to do with compensation. It is do with the fact they were wrong. It is a matter of principle. Why did it take going to the Supreme Court to have common sense prevail?" she says.
At times she has had to resort to antidepressants to keep going on the days when she cannot stop crying. But she has the unswerving support of her husband, Nigel, 48, who helped to bring up Phillip, as well as the other children. Her youngest, Niki, a remarkably composed 15‑year‑old, chips in: "I don't like seeing her upset. That's the hardest thing. When you think nobody really cares."
Sue Smith still has a long fight ahead. Now her case will return to the High Court to decide whether, even with the human rights coverage, she has a claim.
But as she puts it: "I knew I was taking on a beast and I might get savaged. Hell could freeze over, but there is no way I will ever walk away from this battle."
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