Court victory for families of soldiers killed in Iraq

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The Independent Online

The families of four British soldiers killed in Iraq have won an important round in their legal battle to force the Government to hold an independent inquiry into the decision to go to war.

Three judges sitting in the Court of Appeal in London ruled that the families should be entitled to argue their case at a new hearing later this year.

Lawyers for the families, whose relatives died in Iraq between 2003 and 2005, called the ruling "a stunning victory". "The Government now have to produce evidence to a full hearing in the Court of Appeal," said Phil Shiner, the families' solicitor. "That evidence needs to establish once and for all whether the decision to invade was lawful."

The Court of Appeal ruled they were entitled to apply for a judicial review of the Government's refusal to hold an independent inquiry into the decision to go to war. It reversed a ruling last year when a High Court judge said that the families did not have an arguable case.

In their ruling, the Court of Appeal judges, led by Sir Anthony Clarke, Master of the Rolls, said: "It is at least arguable that the question whether the invasion was lawful, or reasonably thought to have been lawful, as a matter of international law is worthy of investigation."

But they warned that permission to appeal had been given as the case raised issues "of some general importance", not because they believed the challenge "has a real prospect of success".

After the ruling, Mr Shiner said: "In particular, the Government must finally explain how the 13-page, equivocal advice from the Attorney General of 7 March 2003 was changed within 10 days to a one-page, completely unequivocal advice that an invasion would be legal."

Yesterday's appeal was brought by Peter Brierley, the father of Shaun Brierley; Beverley Clarke, the mother of David Clarke; Rose Gentle, the mother of Gordon Gentle, and Susan Smith, the mother of Phillip Hewett.

Lance Corporal Shaun Brierley, 28, whose family are from Batley, West Yorkshire, was serving with 212 Signals Squadron when he was killed in a crash in Kuwait in March 2003.

Trooper David Clarke, 19, from Littleworth, Staffordshire, was one of two soldiers who died in March 2003 in a "friendly fire" incident west of Basra.

Fusilier Gordon Gentle, 19, from Glasgow, of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, died in June 2004 in an improvised explosive device attack on vehicles in Basra.

Private Phillip Hewett, 21, from Tamworth, Staffordshire, was one of three soldiers from C Company, 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment, who died in a roadside bomb blast in the Risaala district of Amarah in July 2005.

Peter Brierley said after yesterday's ruling: "At last our case will be heard in full. I feel completely vindicated in bringing this case so far without any financial support. I am convinced that my son died for no good reason, as he should not have been sent to Iraq in the first place."

Rose Gentle said: "My son died when a roadside bomb went off under the vehicle he was travelling in. He was in Iraq to fight for his country, but I now know he should never have been sent there. He died for nothing."

She added: "I have done everything in my power to persuade Tony Blair to meet with me, but he refuses. Now I will finally get to see the Government have to justify their decision to invade Iraq, which most of the public believe was unlawful and counter-productive."

A spokesman for the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, said: "The judgment by the Court of Appeal is only a decision to grant permission to apply for judicial review. While the Government deeply regrets the deaths of members of the armed forces in Iraq, it will continue to argue that the decision not to grant a public inquiry was entirely reasonable. There have already been four inquiries into the Iraq war - Hutton, Butler, Intelligence Security Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee."

The spokesman said the Government would continue to argue strongly that "there is no legal merit in the applicants' case, and that issues relating to the use of armed force are fundamentally matters for the elected Government to decide, not for determination by the courts".