GOVERNMENT attempts to block massive compensation claims by atomic bomb test veterans were “a slap in the face” for those left with a legacy of illness by serving their country, leading judges heard.
More than 1,000 ex-services personnel, now mostly in their seventies, are seeking hundreds of millions of pounds in damages from the Ministry of Defence, claiming radiation exposure during the tests in the Pacific and mainland Australia in the 1950s had blighted their lives.
Among them is Harold Walmsley, of Holywell, who said he and others were given “no protection whatsoever” when nuclear testing was carried out near Christmas Island. But the Ministry is trying to persuade three judges at London's Civil Appeal Court that there could be no fair trial of the veterans' claims so many years after the mushroom clouds formed and that many of them should have their cases “struck out” for delay.
Charles Gibson QC, for the MoD, said it was “wholly irrelevant” for the veterans to argue that they should have their day in court and that it would be “a slap in the face” if some of them had their compensation claims blocked.
And he told the judges it was not enough to found a valid claim for veterans to hold a “mere belief” that a wide range of medical complaints – many of them common in old age – were a result of radiation exposure after the tests.
Emphasising that such claims normally have to be brought within three years, the barrister said to allow all the 1,000 cases to proceed to trial would “drive a coach and horses” through the law.
Also pointing to the escalating costs of the case, the QC said the veterans’ legal bills were already being put at more than £11 million last year – and none of the cases had even reached the stage of a full hearing.
The ex-servicemen, their widows and families have fought a marathon legal campaign to prove that unsuspecting veterans were made ill, often fatally, by radioactive fallout exposure following the tests.
And they won a major victory in June last year when High Court judge, Mr Justice Foskett, rejected MoD arguments that the veterans’ claims were "bound to fail" and opened the way for them to proceed to a full hearing.
Despite more than 50 years having passed since the tests, the judge said a fair trial of the cases was still possible and “there is a case to be answered” on whether veterans were adequately protected against nuclear fallout.
But the MoD insists there was a “vacuum of evidence” to support the veterans' claims and launched an appeal against the judge’s ruling which is expected to last eight days and run up another huge legal costs bill.
Mr Gibson said Mr Justice Foskett should have looked more carefully at each of the 10 ‘lead’ cases to see if there was any real evidence that their “constantly changing” medical complaints could be attributed to nuclear fall-out.