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Armed Forces: Serious Crime

Volume 783: debated on Tuesday 5 September 2017


Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the procedures for trying members of the armed forces for serious crimes such as murder; and whether they intend to consult on possible improvements to those procedures.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I beg to ask the Question standing in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Morris of Aberavon.

My Lords, the procedures for trying service personnel for serious offences under the service justice system are reviewed every five years. In preparation for the Armed Forces Bill in 2020, we will review what the services need from the system of justice and whether the current provisions are the most effective means of delivering that. I do not anticipate any external consultation in delivering this, but the Government will consider any representations made.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that Answer, but can I press him on the point on consultation in my noble and learned friend’s Question? If the Government are to review, they should do so on the best information possible. Those who have been through the system themselves, or other service men and women and their families, will be in a position to assist the Government to ensure that the best possible procedures are in place. Although he said that he will accept and welcome any information, I ask him to undertake a positive review and consultation process, and to invite those people and the wider public to consult on this issue.

My Lords, the Government’s aim is that the service justice system mirrors where possible the provisions of the civilian criminal justice system. Where the maintenance of operational effectiveness across the Armed Forces requires it, there may be differences from that system. Given those principles, we are not so far persuaded that there would be much to gain in conducting a public consultation about a future system, but that does not preclude any interested parties making representations to the Government on these issues as and when they think it appropriate. We would welcome that.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Association of Military Court Advocates. The noble Earl may recall that in February last year, when we debated at Second Reading the Armed Forces Bill, I suggested that the public had lost confidence in the trial by court martial of serious offences of service personnel. I suggested that cases of murder, rape and sexual offences, and of universal jurisdiction—war crimes and so on—should be tried by an ordinary jury in the Crown Court in this country, and that the days of having courts martial in far-flung places are long past.

My Lords, I recall our debates on the Armed Forces Act, as it now is, and I was grateful for the noble Lord’s interventions on that occasion. As he knows, there is a protocol in existence between service and civilian prosecutors. It recognises that some cases are more appropriately dealt with in the civilian system and some in the service system. The main principle in deciding who acts is whether the offence has any civilian context, especially a civilian victim. The protocol provides that cases with a civilian context are dealt with by the civilian criminal justice system, but where there is a service context it is important that the services can manage the case in question.

My Lords, will the Minister and the department be careful not to confuse this issue with killings in war? We remember the case of Sergeant Blackman, who shot a Taliban fighter and was imprisoned. One who has fought terrorists and knows the deviousness of such people and the fact that they will glory in their own deaths cannot afford to take chances. One hopes that those cases will be viewed somewhat differently from ordinary crimes.

My Lords, I fully take the point made by the noble Lord. I am sure he is thinking of the cases that arose during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence is working with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to ensure that the principle that investigations by the police or anyone else in Northern Ireland should be fair, balanced and proportionate is embedded in the implementation of the Stormont House agreement.

My Lords, the fundamental ethos of a court martial should be that you are tried by your peers. That means that if you are a fighting soldier you are tried by other fighting men and not, may I say, by people who have never even heard a shot fired in anger. My second point is that conviction by a simple majority is grossly unfair. I raised these matters with the noble Earl before and I hope that there will be an opportunity for them to be considered accurately and fairly to ensure that we do not have miscarriages of justice the like of which we have recently had.

My Lords, the first point made by the noble Lord is well taken and I fully agree with him. On the question of majority verdicts, as he knows, that system has been found fair and lawful in the courts, but I recognise that there are strong differences of opinion about this, which is why we shall be examining that matter, among others, in the run-up to the Armed Forces Bill of 2020.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that this review will make certain that military personnel have the same access to proper mental health assessments before they are tried as do those in normal, everyday practice?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. The mental health of all those who serve our country bravely is of the utmost importance. For some time now, measures have been in place to increase awareness of operational stress at all levels. For example, anyone in Afghanistan showing signs of stress was offered support, as well as a formal mental health assessment if it was needed, and treatment by a mental health professional. These measures have helped enormously to ensure that the Armed Forces themselves are aware of the help available to them.