Why I welcome a review of the military justice system

An independent review of the British military justice system, including the controversial use of majority verdicts in court martials, is to be carried out, the Government has announced.

The aim of the review is to ensure the system is as “effective as it can be for the 21st century”.

It follows calls for the court martial system to be brought into line with the civil courts, with the right for the most serious cases, such as rape and murder, to be tried by a jury and overseen by a judge.

Concerns have been raised over the use of majority verdicts at court martial hearings.

Speaking in the House of Lords, Tory frontbencher Baroness Goldie said:

“The Armed Forces Act 2006 is kept under regular review and the last two Armed Forces Acts of 2011 and 2016 in renewing those provisions have made modest changes.

“In preparation for the next Armed Forces Bill in 2020, the Government has decided that the time is now right for an independent and more in-depth look at the service justice system so that we can be assured the system is as effective as it can be for the 21st century.”

I welcome this review into a serious issue.

Traditionally, court martial hearings have been held by the military, for the military.

Having attended many court martials, both for those charged and those affected by the crime, I believe this review has to consider 3 major issues:

The rights of the accused and a fair trial.

The rights of the victims, their families and their expectations.

The rights of the military to confidentiality in certain sensitive areas such as special forces and identities.

These issues need to be considered against the need for transparency.

My experience of jury hearings is that they take longer and are more costly – but if they result in a better, fairer process with transparency for the accused and the victims then they have to be the way forward.

The MoD will no doubt argue that the general public are not equipped or skilled enough to deal with these matters but the legal test for murder is the same whether in civilian life or military.

There may be extenuating circumstances peculiar to the military such as rules of engagement – but these are not difficult to understand and are largely common sense. We do the general public a great disservice by undermining their ability to grasp the facts of a case and make the right decisions.

Having represented numerous families at military inquests there is undoubtedly far greater transparency at jury Inquests, where time is taken to explain all the information.

Too many times military inquests have been led and controlled by the military to the frustration of the victim’s family. Their expectations need to be managed and understood and a jury trial assists in this process.

Confidential military issues are continuously raised but these can be adequately dealt with.  For example, in military inquests involving Special Forces, evidence can be given from behind a screen and the jury can be asked to leave the court for any information concerning national security.

In reality, confidentiality is no longer the issue it was years ago. Nowadays, with access to the internet and social media, it is difficult for most procedures to remain confidential.  Gone, unfortunately, are the days of the secrecy levels obtained for example in WW2 when confidentiality was a foregone conclusion.

Hilary Meredith