Veteran advocacy

When the former head of the British Army General Lord Dannatt describes the deaths of veterans who take their own lives as an “epidemic of our time”, the needs of veterans can no longer be ignored.

We must also never forget that the liberties that we enjoy today are due to the sacrifices of others. When veterans’ rights are infringed, we as lawyers must assist veterans in holding the state to account.

The new Office for Veterans’ Affairs (OVA) was created in July 2019 and became operational last September. It is tasked with “helping to generate a ‘single view of the veteran’ by making better use of data to understand veterans’ needs and where gaps in provision exist”.

It’s a long time since the last comprehensive data was collated by researchers. Led by Professor Nav Kapur, head of research at Manchester University’s Centre for Suicide Prevention, a team studied the deaths of veterans in the community after their discharge from the UK armed forces between 1996 and 2005.

His report from March 2009 found that ex-servicemen under 24 years old were at the greatest risk of suicide. Those in lower ranks and who served for a relatively short period of time before discharge were the most vulnerable. Professor Kapur warned that “whatever the explanation for our findings, these individuals may benefit from some form of intervention”.

Ten years on, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has jointly commissioned a further study by Manchester University to understand the scale and causes of suicide among veterans between 1996 and 2017. It will focus on the final 12 months of the veterans’ lives and “examine the rate, timing and risk factors to suicide in [those] individuals”.

To align with the work of the OVA, The Veterans’ Cohort Study has also been set up by the defence secretary to conduct a large surveillance study on the causes of death of those who had served in the armed forces between 2001 and 2018. The second phase of the cohort study will monitor all future veteran deaths from 2019. The focus on collecting data is welcomed, but that alone will not address the epidemic of the deaths in the community.

According to The Times, military charities reported in November 2019 that since the start of 2018, an estimated 519 veterans in the UK have died in the community; and in the first two months of 2020, 14 former and serving British personnel are thought to have taken their lives.

There are no official figures – defence statistics do not include records of these deaths and the coroners’ courts have no system in place to readily access this information.

That might now change following the inquest into the death of Lance Corporal David Jukes in October 2018. In July 2019, Emma Brown, area coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, made a damning regulation 28 report to all the state bodies who owed David Jukes a duty of care to treat or to protect him before his death. She expressed the opinion that “there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken”.

In early March, Johnny Mercer (Minister for Defence People and Veterans) met with bereaved families and experts to understand how the state could have intervened to prevent the veterans from taking their own life. He has since announced the mobilisation of the Veterans’ Mental Health High-Intensity Service for those in the most acute mental health crisis.

This is an important development for all UK armed forces veterans as it’s the first time the state has recognised it owes a duty of care to each one of them and will take action to prevent future deaths in the community. 

Sophie Khan is solicitor-director at Sophie Khan & Co sophiekhan.co.uk