By Stephen Eisenhammer
LONDON (Reuters) - Relatives of four British soldiers killed in the war in Iraq won the right to sue the government for negligence, in a landmark appeal court ruling on Friday that could open the door for other claims.
Families of some of the soldiers who lost their lives in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion had said Britain sent them to the front line with inadequate equipment.
Many of the early casualties were inflicted on troops travelling in lightly armored Snatch Land Rover vehicles designed to confront rioters in Northern Ireland, but ineffective against insurgents' roadside bombs in Iraq.
The court said the British defense ministry had a duty of care towards its employees, including soldiers on the battlefield, and had to provide them with the right gear.
It dismissed the defense ministry's so-called "combat immunity" argument that the government could not be held responsible for the decisions of commanders in the heat of battle.
"My clients are very pleased with the verdict," Shubhaa Srinivasan, a lawyer representing one of the families told Reuters.
"Today's ruling is really not about second guessing the soldiers and decisions they make on the ground in the heat of battle ... It's all about whether you're properly equipping troops to do what they're meant to do on the battlefield," she said.
The Appeals Court also upheld a June 2011 High Court ruling that said relatives of two soldiers could not claim for compensation on the grounds that the men's human rights had been violated.
Susan Smith, the mother of Phillip Hewett who was killed in Iraq in July 2005, said she was angered by that second ruling.
"Why is it that the UK is always ramming down your throat about everybody else's human rights but their own soldiers have got none?" she told the BBC.
Eric Grove, director of the center of international security and war studies at the University of Salford, said the prospect of negligence lawsuits would hamper Britain's army.
"I think it's applying civil standards to military affairs and combat which is completely inappropriate," he told Reuters.
"If the armed forces are constantly looking over their shoulder asking is the equipment sufficient ... If you take that view we probably wouldn't have gone to war in 1939," he added, referring to the beginning of World War Two.
A total of 179 British soldiers lost their lives in Iraq during the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and the six years they were stationed there afterwards.
(Reporting by Stephen Eisenhammer; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Andrew Heavens)