The Armed Forces Bill is a chance to give our troops the justice system they deserve
It goes without saying: the rights of servicemen and women are just as deserving of protection as those of civilians. But – until our flawed military justice system is reformed – we will continue to deny our troops some of those vital protections.
In the UK, an Armed Forces Act must be passed every five years – and the latest Bill is on its way through Parliament as we speak.
We’ve seen steps forward in recent years – the creation of an empowered and independent Service Complaints Ombudsman among them. But major failings remain – and, as drafted, this Bill will do little to stop the scandal of second-rate justice for those who serve in our forces.
Here are four ways MPs can improve the Armed Forces Bill – an alternative Bill that would help to create the military justice system our troops deserve:
1. Require the publication of stats on sexual assault and rape
There’s significant evidence that sexual harassment, assault and rape are a problem for those in our forces, particularly for servicewomen.
But evidence on the numbers of allegations, prosecutions and convictions for sexual assault and rape is scarce, because the data is not comprehensively or reliably collected.
This means the Armed Forces don’t possess even basic evidence about the scale of the problem – and you can’t fix a problem without understanding its extent.
Service and local police forces should collect and publish annually anonymised statistics on the number of sexual assault and rape allegations made by or against members of the Armed Forces.
2. End the discretion of Commanding Officers to investigate sexual assault allegations
When a forces member is alleged to have violated service law, a Commanding Officer can decide whether to investigate the allegation themselves or to refer it to the relevant police force.
For a long list of offences, that discretion is curtailed and allegations must be referred to the service police for investigation. But a Commanding Officer isn’t required by law to refer sexual assault allegations to police.
Sexual assault is a gross violation, and investigating such allegations is a job for specially trained police officers and prosecutors. Commanding Officers do not have the necessary training, resources or independence to deliver justice or confidence in the system.
Parliament should amend the Armed Forces Bill so sexual assault, exposure and voyeurism are not excluded from mandatory referral.
3. Require that investigations into death and rape be conducted by civilian police
Investigation into deaths and allegations of rape involving members of the forces should always be investigated by civilian police forces.
Service police forces are institutionally unable to offer the necessary independence and expertise warranted by such cases – particularly when both victim and alleged perpetrator are service personnel.
Yet the authorities’ stance on this is at best unclear and at worst contradictory, governed by a web of confusing and conflicting protocols, procedures and policies, none of which are set out in law. It is impossible to ascertain with any certainty whether these most serious of crimes will be investigated by service or civilian forces.
Liberty represents the family Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut Barracks in 1995. When Cheryl was found dead, Surrey Police immediately handed matters over to the Army. A cursory investigation by the Royal Military Police led to a verdict that Cheryl had taken her own life.
That investigation informed the first inquest, which lasted just an hour and led to an “open” verdict. Key witnesses went uncalled, medical records uninspected and important evidence ignored.
Cheryl’s father Des has repeatedly been reassured that, should the same situation arise again, the investigation would fall to civilian police.
But – given the lack of clarity in law over who should investigate – it’s difficult to understand how that could be the case. If Cheryl died today, there is no guarantee that the approach would be any different.
It’s vital we lay out in the black letter of the law that murder and rape must always be investigated by civilian police – otherwise, mistakes will inevitably be made and justice denied to those willing to give their lives to serve.
4. Independent oversight of service police
Police officers – military and civilian – will inevitably be placed in a position of dispute or conflict at times. Some complaints will amount to allegations of serious criminal conduct. Conversely, officers can be left vulnerable to the consequences of unfounded complaints.
For civilian police, the IPCC is charged with adding independence to oversight and handling of complaints – but no such body exists to oversee service police.
It’s in the interests of victims, families, police and the public that complaints are seen to be subject to genuine, independent scrutiny. The three service police forces – Royal Military, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Police – should be brought within the civilian system of police oversight.
The Armed Forces Bill is a chance for parliamentarians to embed independence and fairness for our troops at the heart of the military justice system. We urge them not to miss that chance.