By John Bynorth
Pressure group meeting with defence secretary to discuss ‘counsel parity’
THE FAMILIES of service personnel killed in non-combat incidents have stepped up a campaign for the Ministry of Defence to cover the legal costs for subsequent inquests.
A group representing 40 families, which includes the parents of two soldiers who died mysteriously at the Deepcut barracks, will discuss the issue with Derek Twigg, the under-secretary of state for defence, on October 17.
The Deepcut & Beyond group, whose spokesman Geoff Gray lost his 17-year-old son - also called Geoff - in an unexplained shooting at the Surrey base where three other recruits died, are demanding families have "parity" with the MoD's often expensively assembled defence counsel at the hearings.
Some families have had to take out loans to cover the costs of hiring a barrister, which can amount to £600 a day.
Twigg took over from Harriet Harman in Prime Minister Gordon Brown's first Cabinet. Campaigners claimed she had been "sympathetic" to the proposal at an earlier meeting with the group.
Over the past 10 years almost 2000 personnel have died in non-combat situations, which range from road accidents to training field incidents and have involved firearms in 200 cases. Families are unhappy that the MoD provides them with paid legal representation only in "exceptional" circumstances.
Gray, from Seaham, County Durham, told the Sunday Herald that the MoD should provide a barrister to allow families to be properly represented. "I was told that I didn't need any representation at my son's inquest, but I was handed three huge files when I arrived and was soon out of my depth," he said.
"I split the papers between myself, my wife and my father to read. It was only then I found out people had been seen running away from the scene of my son's death. If I had a legal team, I could have had all that information weeks before the inquest so they could track down the witnesses and bring them to the hearing.
"It was a farce. We might have got a lot closer to the truth about my son's death had we had legal representation. I want some kind of rule brought in where families who have lost loved ones are represented in the same way as the MoD."
Terry Pears, 63, was left £12,000 in debt after hiring a barrister to handle the inquest into the death of his son Jason, who was crushed by an armoured vehicle in Paderborn, Germany in 2002. His counsel, William Bache QC, uncovered crucial evidence through cross-examination of witnesses that helped returned a verdict of unlawful killing through gross negligence against the army.
The hearings - which were often adjourned, adding to the costs - heard evidence of serious health and safety breaches at the tank's base, and that Corporal Pears, 31, who served in the Light Infantry Regiment, had pushed another man out of the way of a tank.
Bache also challenged suggestions that Pears, from Weston-Super-Mare, had been drunk before his death, when an expert said that "moderately high levels" of alcohol in his body may have come to light after his blood sample was contaminated with bacteria.
His father, who lives in Erith, Kent, said: "I got absolutely nothing from the army in terms of legal support for the case. In fact, they tried to bleed me dry by continually cancelling the inquests. The army provides representation to those soldiers responsible for deaths such as my son's, but the families have to hire their own lawyers.
"Although they were found guilty of gross negligence, nobody was charged with my son's death. I am very bitter, but I have no regrets about spending that amount of money fighting the case."
Yvonne and Jim Collinson, from Perth, who are awaiting the results of an army Board of Inquiry held into their son James's death from a single gunshot wound at Deepcut in 2003, were provided with an MoD barrister because of the case's "exceptional circumstances".
Jim Collinson, 44, said: "We had to put up a fight to get a barrister, but we know from experience that it's a huge help to have parity with the MoD's counsel."
The MoD refused to comment on the minister's meeting, but a spokesman stressed that families are entitled to apply for legal aid for representation.