Shake-up of military justice system unveiled

Shake-up of military justice system unveiled

Members of the armed forces would all be tried under the same military discipline system under new legislation published today.

The government’s armed forces bill, which is due to be debated by MPs in the next few weeks, aims to harmonise and streamline the entire process.

Currently, charges against army, navy and air force staff are decided by separate prosecuting authorities and tried by a temporary, one-off court martial. This system would be replaced by a single prosecuting authority and a permanent court martial covering all three services.

Under the legislation, offences such as going absent without leave or minor assault would continue to be dealt with summarily by commanding officers (CO), but these powers would be harmonised across the armed forces.

For more serious offences, such as murder, however, COs would have a new duty to begin an investigation, presided over by the prosecution authority in conjunction with the military police. COs are currently able to dismiss charges if they believe the evidence is insufficient.

The aim is to bring the military criminal justice system more in line with the civilian justice system, make it quicker and also make it fairer, so that all armed forces personnel would be dealt with in the same way wherever they were serving.

The legislation would also ensure that complaints about bullying, harassment or other issues are dealt with outside a person’s chain of command, although still within the military.

Don Touhig, the under secretary of state for defence, insisted the proposals had not been introduced in the wake of the recent spate of prosecutions against members of the armed forces in Iraq, saying they were aimed at bringing the current system up to date.

“We need a separate system of law for the armed forces. Of that there is no doubt. The bill will provide a single modern system of service law for the first time, harmonising the many different aspects in each of the services,” he said.

“In doing so, it will help enhance operational effectiveness. It will make life easier for those in joint units. And, importantly, it will ensure that service personnel involved in the same military operation are subject to the same system of discipline.

“Discipline is essential, and we depend on service law to enforce it. A fighting force that cannot obey orders and display self-control in peacetime will not stand up to the much more demanding circumstances of operations.”