Cheryl James verdict: Liberty calls for reform to tackle pervasive sexualised culture in the Armed Forces

03 June 2016

  • Coroner HHJ Brian Barker QC CBE delivers critical narrative verdict addressing serious failures in duty of care at Deepcut camp
  • Fresh inquest came 20 years after Pte James’ death – and only after her family threatened action using the Human Rights Act

The Coroner in the inquest into the 1995 death of Private Cheryl James at Deepcut Barracks has today recorded a verdict of suicide, delivering a narrative verdict that severely criticised serious failures in duty of care at Deepcut barracks.

His Honour Judge Brian Barker QC delivered his conclusions at Woking Coroner’s Court following a three-month inquest which heard evidence from more than 100 witnesses.

Cheryl was 18 and undergoing initial training when she was found dead with a bullet wound on 27 November 1995. Surrey Police immediately allowed the Army to take over the investigation into her death. No ballistics or forensics tests were conducted.

The original inquest, held three weeks after her death, lasted just an hour. Key witnesses were not called, medical records uninspected and important evidence ignored.

In 2011, Cheryl’s parents Des and Doreen James approached Liberty, who threatened Surrey Police with legal action under the Human Rights Act unless they provided access to the materials held concerning Cheryl’s death. 

Over the next two years, Surrey Police released more than 90 lever-arch files of statements, documents, forensic evidence and photographs, allowing the family to apply for a fresh inquest.

HHJ Barker ruled that Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights was engaged and this enabled him to deliver the critical narrative verdict.

Des James’ full response to today’s verdict can be read here.

Liberty represents the families of three of the four young recruits who died at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002 – including Ptes Sean Benton and James Collinson – and will continue to seek the fresh inquests they and their families deserve.

Second-best justice for our troops

Following today’s verdict, Liberty is calling for a meaningful reform of the military justice system to tackle the ongoing, pervasive and deeply damaging culture of sexualised behaviour and harassment in the Armed Forces.[i]

Emma Norton, Lawyer for Liberty and solicitor for Mr and Mrs James, said:

“This day has come 20 years too late. There should have been an independent police investigation right from the start. The Army should have been open about life on that camp from day one. Cheryl’s family and friends would have been saved 20 years of unnecessary suffering and pain – and things might have changed for the better, serving the interests of the bereaved, serving soldiers and the British Army.

“It is not good enough for the Army and Ministry of Defence to wait two decades, point to the things that have changed and pat themselves on the back for saying sorry. Sexual harassment continues to afflict our armed forces more than any other sector[ii] – and failings in our military justice system mean those who report an assault are still not guaranteed the fair, independent investigation and support they deserve.

“If there was ever a day for the MoD to commit to change and show they actually care about ending this toxic culture, today is that day.”

In 2016, it remains lawful for:

  • A Commanding Officer in the Armed Forces to choose to investigate an allegation of sexual assault him or herself. There is no legal requirement – as there is for most other criminal offences – to refer the matter to the police.[iii]
  • Military police to investigate serious criminal offences including rape, sexual assault and other violent crime.

Liberty is campaigning for the Government to amend the law to end these practices and embed independence and fairness for our troops at the heart of the military justice system. 

The environment at Deepcut

The inquest exposed to public scrutiny the deeply toxic environment in which Cheryl and hundreds of other young soldiers lived. It revealed:

  • Unworkable supervision ratios of as few as one supervisor to 200 trainee soldiers.
  • Unsupervised access to alcohol, including for under 18s.
  • No formal welfare policy and essentially no welfare support for young people, many of whom were vulnerable and away from home for the first time.
  • A highly sexualised environment with some male supervisors seeing young female trainees as a sexual challenge – and nowhere for a young soldier seeking advice and support to go.

These failures were only admitted by the MoD for the first time during the inquest, more than 20 years after Cheryl died.

Emma Norton said: “The evidence revealed a brutal and morally chaotic environment, particularly for young women, which amounted to a deeply harmful failure in the duty of care they were owed.”

The Surrey Police investigation

The inquest revealed Surrey Police conducted no investigation whatsoever in 1995, leaving the military police to investigate a sudden death on military property themselves. This amounted not to an investigation into a potential crime, but to a preparation of a series of statements for the then Coroner based on an assumption of suicide.

Given the lack of any basic policing and forensic work at the scene, Surrey Police’s agreement to investigate in 2002 came too late.

Investigating officers’ behaviour was deeply inappropriate at times and internal memorandums have revealed that – before the bulk of witnesses were interviewed and expert evidence obtained – senior officers believed they had enough information to be satisfied as to how Cheryl and the three other recruits had died, and needed only to focus on why they had died.

ENDS

Contact: Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656, 07973 831 128 or pressoffice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.

Notes to editors

Liberty urges anyone who has suffered sexual or other abuse while at Deepcut or while serving in the armed forces to report their experiences to police. A dedicated Surrey Police officer has been identified to deal with any allegations of assault at Deepcut. Anyone with concerns about contacting Surrey Police is urged to contact Liberty in confidence at militaryjustice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.

 

[i] Excerpt from the transcript of the inquest into the death of Cheryl James, 13 April 2016

Q (Counsel).  I think there has been a recent survey, at least in 2014, conducted into sexual harassment in the army as a whole rather than just focusing on trainees.  Can you tell us about that?

A (BRIG JOHN DONNELLY).  Yes, in 2014, we conducted a survey about 24,000 members of the army, all the female servicewomen and some servicemen too, to have a better understanding of the problem of sexual harassment in the army, to really understand the problems so we could make the cultural change. And the results were quite clear, that 90 per cent of respondents felt that the army had an overly sexualised culture, or certainly sexualised culture.39 per cent of respondents had had a distressing experience, sexual harassment or conduct short of harassment about 12 per cent had actually made a complaint and taken it further and found the whole thing very distressing, but also that a significant number of respondents did not have confidence in the complaint process.

 

[ii] In 2014, Opportunity Now conducted research which demonstrated that 23 per cent of women in the uniformed and armed services suffer sexual harassment. The average elsewhere is 12 per cent.

 

[iii] Section 113 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 requires a Commanding Officer, when s/he becomes aware that certain criminal offences may have been committed, to refer the matter to the service police for investigation. The list of offences that must be referred to police are contained within Schedule 2 to the Act. A small group of offences are excluded from this mandatory referrals process, one of which is sexual assault.