Law firm that championed Iraqi claims against UK troops to close: media

August 15, 2016 11:50 AM EDT

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LONDON (Reuters) - A British law firm that doggedly pursued allegations of killings and torture made by Iraqi claimants against British troops will close down at the end of the month after it lost vital government funding, British media reported on Monday.

Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) had been widely criticized for driving a series of legal actions that resulted in a costly public inquiry into suspected unlawful killings that concluded after years of work the allegations were untrue.

"This is the right outcome for our armed forces," Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said in a statement.

The Birmingham-based firm could not immediately be reached for comment.

The government's Legal Aid Agency, which funds legal action when people can't afford to pay, in the interests of fair access to justice, said it had stopped funding PIL. It declined to give a reason.

Founded in 1999 by lawyer Phil Shiner, PIL made its name pursuing claims of various kinds against the British state and in particular its armed forces in connection with British participation in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

One of its notable successes was the case of Baha Mousa, an Iraqi civilian who died in British army custody in Basra in 2003.

PIL's efforts in that case led to a huge public inquiry that concluded in 2011 that Mousa had been violently abused by British soldiers. The inquiry made 73 reform recommendations, most of which were enacted.

More recently, however, the firm attracted criticism for its key role in the 31-million-pound ($40 million) Al-Sweady public inquiry into allegations that British troops had executed Iraqi civilians and mutilated their bodies at a British base in 2004.

After years of legal argument and painstaking evidence-taking, including flying witnesses from Iraq to London and hearing others by video-link from the British embassy in Beirut, the inquiry dismissed the allegations.

PIL was also involved in an attempt in 2014 to prompt the International Criminal Court to investigate allegations of torture by British troops in Iraq between 2003 and 2008.

Britain's involvement in the Iraq war in 2003 remains a sensitive issue, especially after a seven-year inquiry concluded last month that then Prime Minister Tony Blair's justification and handling of the war involved a catalog of failures.

But critics of PIL and Shiner said the firm had gone too far in pursuing dubious allegations, and that some of the resulting legal actions had wasted legal aid funding and court time.

"The closure of PIL shows that we are making progress on that and tackling these types of firms," a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday.

The government said it was looking at imposing tougher penalties on law firms which make "bogus claims" and at how to deter others.

(Reporting by Karolin Schaps; additional reporting by William James; editing by Estelle Shirbon and Stephen Addison)

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