Grieving families call for legal aid to fight MoD

Inquests into deaths of service personnel obstructed by officials who won't release documents or names of witnesses, say relatives
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The Independent Online

Families of British service personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are being obstructed by the MoD in their efforts to discover how their children died, it was claimed yesterday.

Parents say they have to fight for the names of witnesses and the release of documents, which are then heavily censored, to prepare properly for inquests. Such is the difficulty that they are now calling for free legal help to battle the barristers who represent the MoD at inquests, more than 100 of which are still outstanding.

The cases highlight claims that the Military Covenant – the bond of duty between the forces and the nation – has been broken. The IoS is campaigning for servicemen and women who risk their lives to be equipped and treated properly and, in the event of their deaths, for their families to be looked after.

Such is the level of anger over the release of information that some solicitors and barristers are acting for families free of charge. Ann Lawrence, whose son, Marc, died in a Sea King helicopter crash in March 2003, waited nearly four years for an inquest which she then described as full of "contradictory evidence".

Tomorrow an inquest begins into the death of Corporal John Cosby, who died in Iraq in July 2006. In pre-inquest hearings the coroner had to order the MoD to release witness details.

Jocelyn Cockburn, of solicitors Hodge Jones and Allen, an inquest specialist, said families are denied basic information by the MoD, which only releases documents when threatened with legal action.

In the case of Jason Smith, who died of heatstroke in Iraq (see below), it was only under questioning by a barrister, who was acting for free, that failings in his medical treatment became known, she said.

Ms Cockburn, who is representing the Cosby family, said: "I have no doubt that there was a cynical damage-limitation exercise employed by the MoD at the Jason Smith inquest."

Mrs Lawrence said: "Prior to the inquest the MoD was very obstructive and almost pointing a finger at my son. It doesn't matter how much anybody suffers as long as they look blameless." Her MP, the Conservative Roger Gale, added: "The state uses our money to represent itself. The families of the bereaved have no recourse to legal representation."

An MoD spokesman said: "We give as much information as possible to families but we do redact [black out] information to ensure the security of our personnel. The Oxford coroner has praised the MoD for the high level of support he receives."

A mother's battle: 'Army won't tell the truth'

Private Jason Smith, 32, a reservist attached to the King's Own Scottish Borderers, died of heatstroke in Al Amarah stadium in Abu Naji when temperatures touched 60C. Despite the heat, there was no air-conditioning and no medics in the stadium, even though up to 30 people a day needed treatment. The wrong information on hydration was handed out.

Much of this was only revealed at the inquest, which didn't take place until four years after his death. His mother, Catherine, said every day was a battle for information. "There was no disclosure at all," she said.

The Army told Mrs Smith Jason's death was unavoidable. It also refused to let her see his body, and when a report was finally sent to her this year, it was heavily censored. At the inquest, witnesses, such as an ambulance driver, were not called and crucial evidence was not heard. The coroner now concedes a new inquest should be held.

"Things keep cropping up," said Mrs Smith. "And we discover that what they tell us is not the truth. I wouldn't have known what to do without legal help."