Army families who sue the Department of Defense over poor housing are given “bullying” ultimatums to drop claims or face a pay cut to cover court costs.
Documents obtained by the Guardian suggest the threat of further financial hardship amid a deepening cost-of-living crisis is being exploited by government lawyers to prevent courts from considering compensation claims.
Hundreds of military families are reportedly seeking legal redress at a time when the Military Family Housing (SFA) system has been overwhelmed with complaints.
The Ministry of Defense did not appear to defend the legal claims already filed, on the grounds that the government failed to provide safe and well-maintained homes.
Government lawyers instead sent aggressive letters warning that unless the claims are dropped, the MoD will seek full costs in the event of a subsequent judgment in their favor.
The strategy has even been deployed where the county court has issued a “default” judgment in favor of the military family in cases where the Department of Defense has failed to defend a claim.
In correspondence seen by this newspaper, a senior government lawyer wrote: “The purpose of this letter is to make you an open offer that if you accept that the default judgment order be set aside and that you drop the claim in consent order process (a copy of a draft of which is attached), the MoD will not seek its legal costs from this process.
“If, however, you do not agree with this by the end of Wednesday September 14, 2022, we will issue the request and seek full legal costs from the MoD.”
In a letter to a second plaintiff, the same government attorney, acting for the Treasury Attorney, wrote: “If you disagree and expose us to the pain and expense of a claim disputed, we will seek the Ministry of Defense’s legal costs (which I have no doubt can be recovered by deduction from your salary). Please respond no later than 4 p.m. on Monday, October 3, 2022.”
When questioned, the lawyer behind the correspondence declined to comment.
A Ministry of Defense spokesman said: “These cases relate to property leased outside the UK. We will not comment further on this due to ongoing legal proceedings.
The revelations drew condemnation from all parties.
Shadow Defense Secretary John Healey said: “This is completely unacceptable. Ministers must cancel the Ministry of Defense’s legal dogs and drop these threats against the families of the forces.
“When service families have to go to court to get basic repairs done, it confirms deep shortcomings in service accommodation. Yet the ministers do not have a proper plan to solve the problems.
Mark Francois, a former Conservative Armed Forces Minister, said: ‘Ministers clearly need to step in urgently, to sort out this terrible mess.’
Tobias Ellwood, Tory Chairman of the Commons Defense Select Committee, said: ‘All service members and their families deserve quality housing.
“When they’re not on operations, that’s where the military spends their time and that’s where the family feels at home. Increasingly, it is the constraints and pressures on family life that tip the scales by forcing serving personnel to leave the military.
A whistleblower says the MoD is looking to ‘bully’ service personnel, but a growing number of service personnel are preparing to take legal action over the MoD’s failure to ensure that their houses were of a decent standard.
According to documents obtained by the Guardian, a military family, following a successful claim in County Court, obtained a High Court writ and sent bailiffs to the headquarters of the infrastructure organization of defense of the Ministry of Defense at Lichfield in Staffordshire.
A senior Ministry of Defense official asked the bailiff to leave without taking any possessions as payment because it “could make headlines”, according to a report on the October 4 incident.
Alfie Usher, a former paratrooper who now runs the claims management company Claims Bible, said he had received 400 expressions of interest in the past fortnight from service personnel interested in filing complaints against the department Defense, of which he expected 100 to meet a threshold for a claim.
He said: ‘They include cases of black mold and cases of asbestos have been reported. A guy who found asbestos in his kitchen, he was just told to stay away from the area. Heating is also important, especially with those who have children.
“A complaint is the only way: when it starts to cost them money, the MoD will start listening. It’s not earned, no fees, and worst case scenario when we make a claim, the MoD will come and fix it.
The condition of accommodation rented to military personnel and their families has long been of concern.
Under a 1996 deal brokered by then Defense Secretary Michael Portillo, around 57,000 such properties were sold to Annington Homes for £1.66billion. The company is now owned by Terra Firma, the private equity giant founded by billionaire Guy Hands.
As part of the deal, the government took a 200-year lease on the houses to continue to provide accommodation for service personnel. The MoD retained responsibility for repairs and maintenance.
Without being able to capitalize on the increase in property values, the Ministry of Defense is struggling to maintain the aging building stock.
Four years ago the National Audit Office found that rising house prices meant the government was between £2.2bn and £4.2bn worse off than it would have been if it had retained the real estate portfolio.
In September, the Ministry of Defense’s Defense Infrastructure Organization was forced to apologize for the ‘unacceptable’ service provided by three sub-contracting firms which were awarded £650million contracts to dealing with complaints, housing allocation and maintenance.