Families wait eight years for military inquests

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The Independent Online

The families of as many as 116 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other military operations are still awaiting inquests, some after more than eight years.

The full extent of the problem was revealed yesterday as Harriet Harman, the minister for Constitutional Affairs, presented a written statement to MPs.

Bereaved families have complained of being treated with contempt because they have been left to wait years for inquests. Ms Harman admitted this week that the situation was "unacceptable".

In June she promised extra resources to the Oxford coroner, who is dealing with the bulk of the cases, and offered assurances that all inquests into the deaths of servicemen and women with no outstanding Ministry of Defence inquiries would take place by the end of the year.

Yesterday Ms Harman said that was no longer the case. "The coroner has now informed me that, due to the complexity of many of these cases, it is unlikely that all of these inquests will have been completed by the end of the year," she said. "However, it is intended that all of these inquests will either have been held or have a date fixed for the hearing by the end of the year."

Yesterday Ann Lawrence, whose 26-year-old son, Lieutenant Marc Lawrence, died in a helicopter crash during the invasion of Iraq, said no one had ever really explained why she was still waiting more than three years later for her questions to be answered at an inquest. "He was my young-est. There isn't a day goes by when I don't think of him. We are treated with contempt. All I have been told is it is a lack of resources.

"They had the money to send us to war. They have the money to continue the war but they haven't got the money for the aftermath."

Yesterday's statement revealed that some servicemen's families had been waiting even longer. Inquests have yet to be held into the deaths of RAF Flight Lieutenant Mark Maguire and Captain Andrew Crous, of the Army Air Corps, who were killed when their Puma helicopter crashed in bad weather in Kosovo on 9 April 2001.

Relatives of a leading explosives expert, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Watkins, are also awaiting an inquest. He was killed on 11 August 1998 while clearing First World War explosive charges from tunnels under Vimy Ridge in northern France.

Yesterday the shadow Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said: "This is simply not good enough; bereaved families will not be satisfied.

"If the complexity of the cases means the Oxfordshire coroner cannot complete these inquests in a shorter time, then other county coroners should be asked to deal with the backlog, as permitted under the 1988 Act. We offered the (Defence) Minister (Des Browne) on Tuesday our support to make any change in the law necessary to clear the build-up of outstanding inquests. It's nonsense for the Government to say they can't do anything."

The Oxford coroner has a total of 106 military cases to deal with - though some are now being transferred to other jurisdictions - because most of the bodies from Iraq and Afghanistan are flown back to Brize Norton. He also has to deal with the deaths of 14 civilians, including the ITN journalist Terry Lloyd. The Wiltshire coroner is dealing with the deaths of the 10 servicemen killed in the Hercules crash in Iraq in January 2005.

Yesterday, the Oxford coroner Nicholas Gardiner said he and his deputies were now trying to progress cases as swiftly as possible, including the very early deaths which had been previously "overlooked".