Matthews v Ministry of Defence  UKHL 4; 1 All ER 689
Tort; liability of Crown; injury during service; human rights
Matthews was an electrical mechanic in the Royal Navy for some 13 years. Decades after his service ended he was diagnosed as having asbestos-related injuries.
He claimed damages from the Ministry of Defence, arguing that the ministry breached its statutory duty or committed negligence by exposing him to asbestos during his service. The ministry relied on s. 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947 (exempting the Crown from tortious liability for injuries suffered by the armed forces due to events before 1987) and denied the claim. The Secretary of State even issued a certificate (within the meaning of s. 10(1)(b)) that if the claimant’s injury was due to an event during service, it would be attributable to service for pension entitlement purposes. The trial judge held that s. 10 was incompatible with Article 6 of the ECHR, namely the right to a fair trial (as set out in Schedule 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998) because it unjustifiably prevented the claimant from exercising his right to sue. The ministry’s appeal was allowed by the Court of Appeal.
The House of Lords dismissed Matthews’s appeal. It held that in Article 6, “civil rights” were autonomous and should not be interpreted solely by reference to one country’s domestic law. However, while Article 6(1) indeed protected a person’s access to justice/court, it did so only in relation to civil rights that were recognised in the given country – here, the UK – and where the restriction was procedural. The Crown was exempted from liability for injuries suffered by the armed services both at common law and expressly under s. 10 of the 1947 Act (including the Secretary of State’s certificate). The claimant was entitled to benefits under a no-fault compensation scheme that could not be substituted for a damages claim. S. 10 of the 1947 Act was not a procedural restriction but rather a rule of substantive law under which Matthews had no civil right that Article 6 could be applied to.