The right to know

The deaths at Deepcut barracks remain mysterious. Now relatives are pressing for a proper inquiry, reports Jon Robins
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"What we want is a Hutton-style inquiry where everything is brought out into the open and, for the first time, there will be transparency," declares Geoff Gray. Gray's 17-year-old son, also Geoff, was one of four young soldiers since 1995 to have died in mysterious circumstances at the notorious Deepcut barracks in Surrey. This month the Surrey police is expected to publish its final report, after an investigation that cost £1m and called on 900 witnesses, but is expected to confirm its preliminary conclusion that there are "no grounds" for a criminal prosecution.

"When the Government can announce a public inquiry into the tragic death of a doctor, that may or may not have been suicide, simply because it impinges upon Tony Blair's reputation, why the hesitation in forming a public inquiry into the deaths of at least 75 young people?" asks John Cooper, the barrister who is representing the Gray family.

Cooper is referring to the 75 "untimely deaths" involving weapons which have occurred between 1991 and 2001 in the military. The Gray family, together with the families of Privates James Collinson, 17, Sean Benton, 20, and Cheryl James, 18, are all pushing for an inquiry. The recruits all died from gunshot wounds at Deepcut since 1995, amidst allegations of bullying, and the families have refused to accept that their children committed suicide using their own rifles.

The Deepcut families have long since complained that the investigation was reduced to a "farce" when it transpired that the local police were relying on Ministry of Defence (MoD) police to investigate. Nonetheless the 15-month investigation revealed "significant gaps in the care" of young soldiers.

Private Gray, whose childhood dream was to be a soldier, joined the British army in January 2001 on his 17th birthday. In September that year he was found dead with two bullet holes in his head on guard duty. As Geoff Gray points out, the two ballistics experts instructed by the police could neither come up with a suicide verdict nor find evidence of third party involvement. "You can't shoot yourself twice in the head with an SA80 rifle," Gray says.

John Cooper is pressing for a civil action in negligence against the MoD for breach of its duty of care to new recruits. "At the age when soldiers can't even buy a pint of beer they are allowed to have guns," he adds.

The Gray family maintains that there was a "cover up". They only discovered their son had been shot twice when they were handed a court bundle 10 minutes before the inquest for which they were told they would not need lawyers. "The point when I first realised that I was up against a brick wall was there, at the inquest, when I was questioning the soldiers on guard duty with Geoff the night he died," he recalls. "They just blanked me."

Accusations of arrogance and heavy-handed defensiveness on the MoD's part come as no surprise to those claimant lawyers that routinely deal with it. "It's hard to tell where deliberate obstruction ends and incompetence sets in," comments John Mackenzie, a solicitor who specialises in claims against the MoD. "They give the impression that they are just so incompetent that it's hard to believe it's not malicious." Many lawyers complain of the "disappearance" of army files, a reluctance to disclose, and a general disregard for the Civil Procedure Rules.

It is not difficult to see how the ministry has become swamped by claims following the lifting of Crown Immunity in 1987. According to a National Audit Office report published in July, the MoD paid out almost £100m last year, a four-fold increase since 1992.

But not every claimant lawyer is so quick to knock the MoD. Geraldine McCool is a partner at group action specialists Leigh Day & Co, currently representing hundreds of Kenyan women who claim to have been raped by British soldiers. Yes, she agrees that there are "major problems" with disclosure. "But they have embraced the civil procedure reforms that have come in," she says, "and I've found them more efficient and conciliatory than many other major defendants I deal with."

As for the Deepcut and Catterick deaths, claimant lawyers in this area are all too familiar with shocking allegations of bullying in the armed forces. Mark McGhee, a partner at Linder Myers which has represented about 2,000 servicemen in the High Court says: "If there is a public inquiry, I'm certain it will assist in our dealings with the MoD on these claims. But the most important thing is for the family to have the right to know exactly what went on."