DAILY MAIL Slur on British 'Iraq and Afghan' troop heroes as inquest backlog just keeps on growing By MATTHEW HICKLEY - More by this author » Last updated 30th October 2007 The backlog of inquests on British troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan is still growing, the Government admitted yesterday. A total of 253 servicemen and women have died on operations since 2001 but almost half their families are still waiting for inquests. For many it will be years before they learn the full facts about how their loved ones died. The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice reveal that 126 cases are stuck in the legal process - meaning the backlog has risen sharply from 86 last May when ministers first conceded there was a serious problem and promised increased funding. A total of 253 servicemen and women have died in operations since 2001 Although extra coroners and staff have been appointed, officials admit that the sheer number of troops being killed means they are unable to keep up with the demand for proper investigations and legal hearings. The delay in providing proper answers for bereaved families was one of the issues highlighted in the Royal British Legion's "Broken Covenant" campaign, aiming to improve the treatment of the armed forces in the UK. Some families have had to wait more than four years for inquests. The oldest case currently being heard dates from 2004. Huge delays built up after the 2003 invasion of Iraq because the bodies of all military fatalities were flown into RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, meaning responsibility for inquests lay with the local coroner. With inquiries and hearings taking weeks or months in each case, the system was swamped. The Home Office and Ministry of Defence spent months arguing over who should provide extra cash to speed it up. It was only after a public outcry that ministers made more money available. Three extra coroners were appointed to tackle the Oxford backlog last year and around £120,000 has been spent hiring more staff. Other measures aimed at cutting the backlog include flying bodies home to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, shifting the burden to a new area. More cases are also being sent to coroners in soldiers' home towns. But the rapidly-mounting death toll from intense fighting in Afghanistan and bomb attacks in Iraq, has meant the Government's efforts have not been enough. An official statement from junior Justice Minister Bridget Prentice yesterday avoided any mention of the backlog, but the ministry confirmed that 126 deaths out of 253 had not yet been dealt with. A spokesman said: "We have taken serious steps to tackle the backlog in Oxfordshire and prevent a similar backlog building up in Wiltshire. "Subject to events, we're hopeful that the backlog will now start to come down." At one Oxford inquest earlier this year coroner Sir Richard Curtis apologised to families left in a legal limbo and described the delays as "terrible" and "quite, quite unacceptable". Inquest hearings have proved vital for many families, giving them the only chance to force officials at the Defence Ministry or the Pentagon in Washington to provide information. Sue Freeth, director of welfare at the Royal British Legion, said: "The further promised resources do not seem to have had an effect as yet. "As part of our Honour the Covenant campaign, the Legion called for independent legal advice, representation and advocacy for all families, at public expense. "So far we have heard nothing further from the Government on this. "The lack of support for bereaved families must only compound their distress, particularly at this time of national remembrance." Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox said: "Despite Government promises to prevent a build-up, we now have the highest backlog ever. "It is clear there is still a shortfall in resources to cope with the rate at which we are losing service personnel. Ministers must deliver on their promises to get this sorted." The long wait Flight Sergeant Bob O' Connor: The inquest will open more than three years after his RAF Hercules was shot down By the time an inquest opens on Flight Sergeant Bob O'Connor and nine other servicemen, it will be more than three years since their RAF Hercules was shot down in Iraq. The need for a military inquiry, and secrecy concerns about RAF technology, mean a hearing cannot start until next year. The transport plane came down in January 2005 after gunfire pierced a fuel tank, which exploded and blew off a wing. It was the biggest single loss of British lives in the conflict. The families want to know if the plane was fitted with flame-retardant foam to protect the tanks, and how much the pilots and navigators were told about the dangerous area they were crossing. There is confusion about what is causing the delay. Coroner David Masters says Defence Ministry officials are still checking witness interviews and crash reports to decide what to block under the Official Secrets Act. The ministry claims the coroner is still reading the reports of its board of inquiry.