Lord Falconer of Thoroton (Lab) [V]
This has been a very significant debate, and one should not lose sight of the important changes that will take place in the ability of people to sue the MoD in respect of human rights claims, tort claims and contract claims arising out of overseas operations. The underlying problem, which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, identified in his very clear and effective opening remarks, is that you do not want a situation where, when a court is considering whether to extend the limitation period beyond the primary limitation period, there is a bias in favour of the defendant, the Ministry of Defence.
What the noble Lord is saying, in effect, is that it should be approached in the way that these cases are approached in every other piece of civil litigation where there is an application to extend a period of limitation beyond the primary limitation period: the judge comes to a conclusion as to what he or she thinks—this is not quite the line in the statute—is just and equitable in all the circumstances. One of the really important things that one is looking at is the fact that the claimant will have a claim, and the claimant may be losing what would otherwise be a just claim because of the passage of time—and it may well be in particular that the passage of time beyond the primary limitation period could not properly be described as the fault of the claimant.
Over the years, the courts have become quite expert at exercising a discretion in relation to this, both under the Limitation Act 1980 and under the Human Rights Act 1998. My noble friend Lord Hendy, in his very helpful and compelling remarks about how the limitation period works, and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, were basically in the same place. They were both saying that we should strike the balance in an even-handed way. I hope that it is not the case that there is going to be a bias in favour of the MoD, because, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, said, that is not desirable. My noble friend Lord Hendy said that there should not be bias. I completely agree with that. The purpose of this first group of amendments advanced by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, is to make sure that there is not such a bias. I agree with my noble friend Lord Hendy and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, that it has to be clear that there is not going to be a bias.
I believe, therefore, that amendments to the Bill are required. Whether or not the proposals of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, are the best way to do it in group 1—there might be another way of doing it—the sentiment that underlies these amendments and the fact that they have been supported by both my noble friend Lord Hendy and the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, is significant. I very much hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, will have listened and may perhaps reassure us that he will come back with some amendments to make sure that there is not that undesirable bias.