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Armed Forces (Service Court Rules) (Amendment) (No. 2) Rules 2022

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 18 October 2022

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Armed Forces (Service Court Rules) (Amendment) (No. 2) Rules 2022.

Relevant document: 11th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

I feel almost Gilbertian in this Gilbert and Sullivan-esque interchanging of roles.

My Lords, this statutory instrument consists of three changes to the rules that apply to the service courts: to provide an overriding objective for court martial, the Service Civilian Court and the Summary Appeal Court; to give the Director of Service Prosecutions responsibility for warning prosecution witnesses of trial dates; and to increase the representation of women on court martial boards.

The first of the measures in this statutory instrument implements a recommendation of His Honour Shaun Lyons’ review of the service justice system, which was published in 2020. The review recommended the introduction of an overriding objective for the court martial, based on Part 1 of the Criminal Procedure Rules for England. A similar rule has been used in the civil and criminal courts in England and Wales for some time. The overriding objective in the criminal courts is that cases are dealt with “justly”, which encompasses considerations such as the need to acquit the innocent, convict the guilty and ensure that cases are dealt with efficiently and expeditiously. The participants in the case are also subject to this duty as well as the court, which assists with active case management. This measure will mean that judge advocates and participants in proceedings in the court martial, the Service Civilian Court and the Summary Appeal Court are subject to similar duties and will assist case management in those courts.

The second measure in this instrument also implements a recommendation of His Honour Shaun Lyons’ review. The measure amends the current rules on notifying witnesses to give the Director of Service Prosecutions, rather than the Military Court Service, responsibility for warning prosecution witnesses of trial dates. This change will align practice in the service courts with the civilian criminal justice system for England and Wales, where the role is performed by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Finally, this instrument inserts a new Rule 34A into the court martial rules, which requires the court administration officer to ensure that, if any lay members of the court are servicepersons, there is at least one man and one woman on the board. I emphasise that we are confident that the court martial, in its current form, is a fair, efficient and effective court, which delivers justice for our Armed Forces. However, due to the lower numbers of women compared to men serving in the Armed Forces, the chances of a woman being selected at random to serve on a court martial board are significantly lower than those of a woman being randomly selected to serve on a jury in the civilian system.

We want to redress that imbalance by means of this procedural adjustment, which aims to improve and enhance the representation of women on court martial boards. Rather than it being left to chance that a woman will be randomly selected, this change will ensure that there will always be at least one woman on every board. This will bring the court martial closer to the civilian criminal justice system, so that servicewomen’s voices, experiences and perspectives are part of the decision-making process.

This important change has its origins in a recommendation made in the highly regarded Defence Sub-Committee report Women in the Armed Forces: From Recruitment to Civilian Life. That sub-committee was chaired by the recently appointed Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my honourable friend Sarah Atherton. In the government response to the report, the MoD undertook to carry out work to increase women’s representation on court martial boards related to sexual offending. I am delighted to say that the Government are going further than the report recommendation, as we think it is right to ensure that women are better represented on boards dealing with all types of cases.

I reassure your Lordships that the MoD has very carefully examined the impact this will have on women who serve in our Armed Forces. It is true that this measure will mean that women are slightly more likely to be selected to sit on a court martial board than currently. The total number of women required to populate all three services’ boards is 192. This is an increase of 48 more women per year than the current 144, and is 4.2% of the population of women eligible to sit on a court martial board, due to rank and seniority requirements. The total number of men required to populate the three services’ boards would be 672, which is 1.7% of the population of men eligible to sit on a court martial board.

This difference, however, will not result in women being treated less favourably than men. Service as a lay member of a board lasts only around two weeks and is a normal part of the duties of any senior NCO or officer. It can also be useful experience for future command, as commanding officers play a key role in the service justice system. To mitigate the risk of the same women being selected repeatedly, we will also introduce an exemption of 12 months for those women who have already sat on a court martial board for more than five working days.

We believe that increasing the representation of women on court martial boards ensures that they are always part of the decision-making process in service justice. It will better reflect our society and reinforce the important role that servicewomen have, not just in our Armed Forces, but in the service justice system. I beg to move.

My Lords, in supporting this draft SI and accepting that revision is not an option, I still have a couple of points to raise. The overriding objective introduced in all three types of service court seems, on first reading, to be almost entirely motherhood and apple pie, or should almost be taken for granted as sound administration. But I accept that, in the legal world, it is perhaps better to have every likely “i” dotted and every possible “t” crossed. It also follows a recommendation of his honour Shaun Lyons, whose knowledge and expertise in service law and procedure is well recognised and respected. It is right, therefore, that this new section is inserted.

However, I noted, although the accompanying memorandum does not mention it, the extra Rule 3A(2)(h)(v), which is not in the criminal court’s rules. It reads,

“the need to maintain the operational effectiveness of Her Majesty’s forces.”

I imagine some printing amendment will replace “Her” with “His”, but this raises the question of who decides. Presumably the Defence Secretary is responsible for such a judgment, but can he tell a court marital what to do? It may be so unlikely that the situation never arises; in which case, why put it in at all?

Say a key witness is, at short notice, an irreplaceable specialist in a Trident boat whose patrol is about to start and immutable, what then? What if the defendant argues that his Article 6 rights are being set aside or delayed for some operational reason? In the legal world, is this issue better left unsaid? I raise this not to argue against the draft rules but because the Minister’s response may provide further guidance on how the phrase “operational effectiveness” should be interpreted. Indeed, I notified the Minister last week that I would mention this today.

My second point, which is dealt with in the memorandum, is the inclusion of a female lay member. It seems slightly inconsistent to argue both that the small number of females available means that none might be called to serve but that there will always be enough to find at least one available. Should such a rule apply were the Judge Advocate to be a woman? Making this subject to guidance rather than a statutory rule might have been easier to administer, but I accept that restricting it to only sexual crimes was unnecessary and provocatively sexist. I await with interest the Minister’s response on operational effectiveness.

My Lords, like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, on reading the overriding objective as outlined in the statutory instrument, my sense was that it appears in some ways to be motherhood and apple pie. It would seem self-evident that an overriding objective should be that cases should be dealt with justly. How else should we expect the law to be administered? However, the important thing is that the intention is to bring courts martial in alignment as closely as possible with civilian courts, and that is welcome. His honour Shaun Lyons recommended that and that the Government are finally bringing that within the scope of service justice seems entirely appropriate. Similarly, the point about female representation, following from the Atherton report, is welcome, and the Minister’s explanation of why it goes beyond simply sexual crimes and the like is wholly appropriate.

Therefore, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford, I am not sure there will be any specific questions from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I realise I should have brought in reinforcements because Liberal Democrats feel that service justice is always best dealt with by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Gresford.

My Lords, I presume that prior to the very welcome rules female board members were never present. Was that the case? I am looking at Rule 3A(1). How often do these boards sit? One presumes it is as events dictate, but how many are there in the average year? What number are we dealing with? This issue is central to the rules and some numbers might help. Finally, can the Minister furnish an example of gender representation—a woman/she/they—on a given present board? Is an example available?

My Lords, I do not wish simply to make things up. I have very little to say on this. However, the amendments to the rules that the Government have brought forward are important. I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and my noble friend Lord Jones.

From the various reports we have seen, there seems to be a real problem of confidence in some of the service justice system. To be fair to the Government, it is good to see them coming forward to adopt the recommendations of the review that they set up to look at this. These days, being commended is probably something the Government would welcome, but this is an important step forward in this case.

I sometimes wonder about overriding objectives. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is right: this is not a sarcastic remark, but it is quite astounding that we have to say that a court must deal with people fairly—“justly”, according to the law—and that that needs to be written down in law. Having said that, I understand that it is something put down by Judge Lyons—fair enough.

I want to tease the Minister a bit politically here. I do not know whether she has passed this by all sections of the Government but I am absolutely delighted to see them recognising the rights of defendants, particularly under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is absolutely wonderful that the Ministry of Defence is defending the convention and using it as a way of ensuring that courts operate—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

My Lords, I was in the process of welcoming the Armed Forces (Service Court Rules) (Amendment) (No. 2) Rules 2022, in particular their adoption of the recommendations of His Honour Shaun Lyons—we are pleased about that.

I was also congratulating the Minister on the MoD’s including the European Convention on Human Rights. I was excited to see it mentioned on page 2, but my excitement reached a crescendo when I saw it also mentioned on page 3. Then I turned over, and with just a scant look through I saw it mentioned again on page 5. That is before we get to the Explanatory Memorandum, which talks about the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights. Leo Docherty has said that the instrument is consistent with it.

It is important that the Minister outlines for the Committee how important she and the Ministry of Defence think retaining Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights is to the maintenance of the instrument before us. The Committee needs an explanation of that. She will be aware that many members of her own Government seem to think that the European Convention on Human Rights is not important, but I am pleased to see that the Minister and the Ministry of Defence have laid this instrument before us, which makes it clear through repetition that the European Convention on Human Rights is absolutely fundamental to this SI. Will the Minister ensure that all parts of the Government are aware of the importance the MoD attaches to the convention? Looking around the room, I am sure that a number of Committee Members are certainly well able to defend the Minister and help her in that respect, should she need it.

I think we would all welcome the addition of lay members to the court martial panel, and the gender balance. Can the Minister explain what a lay member is? I was speaking to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about this. Our understanding is that a lay member is not a member of the public, so who is a lay member who becomes a member of the court martial board?

Given that the whole purpose of the change in new rule 34A is to try to ensure that initially, there are more effective procedures with respect to sexual offending, I think we are all pleased to see that the Government have now extended that to all offending. Can the Minister say how that will be monitored, and what we mean by lay members?

With those few comments, we welcome the instrument before us. It will be an improvement, and will hopefully lead to greater confidence in the service justice system.

My Lords, once again we have had an interesting debate. In many respects this has been a more technical SI than the earlier one, but none the less, it has generated points of interest and I will do my level best to address them.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, raised the very important issue of who decides. This duty created by the instrument to consider operational effectiveness is vital, and the noble and gallant Lord was good enough to indicate to me where his area of concern lay. I have tried to do some research into it, and I will try to deal with the points that he raised.

It will be for the judge advocate alone to decide what should or should not be done to take account of the need to maintain operational effectiveness. However, it is important to put this provision in context. The overriding objective is that cases be dealt with justly. Some slight mischief was articulated about this being motherhood and apple pie. The essential components are good, but that is because we are replicating what already exists in the civilian criminal justice system, and it works. I make no apology for transporting that into our court martial procedures because I think these are virtuous and will greatly improve our court martial system.

The reference to operational effectiveness does not change the overall objective that cases be dealt with justly. Nor does it affect in any way a defendant’s right under Article 6 of the ECHR. It is there to recognise that the services courts deal with cases where defendants, board members and witnesses will generally be services persons, who will often have other important and sometimes unpredictable commitments.

The role will give judge advocates the flexibility to take this into account. The kind of scenario where we expect it to be relevant would be, for example, where the date of a trial might need to be brought forward or, indeed, delayed, or a witness might be allowed to give evidence via live link. Certainly, I reassure your Lordships that the Judge Advocate-General was consulted and agreed with the use of the phrase “operational effectiveness” in the context of this change.

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for raising an important point. I have tried to address it. The fact that the Judge Advocate-General is content with the position I think provides significant reassurance.

Just to be clear, is the Minister saying to the Committee that the Judge Advocate-General has the say and, regardless of whether the Secretary of State agrees with him, the Judge Advocate- General wins?

That is what I am saying. Indeed, I add to that by observing that it would be profoundly undesirable if the Secretary of State, as a government Minister, were getting involved in the discharge of justice under what should be an independent criminal justice system, albeit within the services justice environment. It would be most undesirable for the Secretary of State to get involved. The Judge Advocate-General alone will decide what should or should not be done to take account of the need to maintain operational effectiveness.

I think I have dealt with the commentary of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, about why this is phrased as it is. It is not some cosy set of aspirations; it really is intended to deliver what has been working well in the civilian criminal justice system and to try to ensure that our services criminal justice system benefits from that. I thank her for her observation about the absence of her colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, who is, of course, always a welcome presence in these debates where legal issues arise. I am sure that he would have had some pithy observations to make on the technical content of the Sis, but I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for confining her remarks to general observations.

The noble Lord, Lord Jones, asked some specific questions, including how often the board sits. Court martial boards sit in assizes of two weeks with 24 periods in any year; that is, 48 weeks a year. The noble Lord also asked whether the measure of extending female representation on the court martial board should be extended to the judge advocates. There is a mix of men and women judge advocates now; we have both men and women. The role is being introduced to align better with juries where women are represented in civilian courts, but there has been under-representation in the analogous role within the services justice system.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, for his kind remarks about the SIs and where we have got to in delivering improvements for Armed Forces personnel. I particularly noted his phrase, “commend the Government”. It is certainly not something I have been hearing very regularly in recent times, and I thank him for that. On his reference to Article 6 of the ECHR, the MoD has consistently shown a desire to comply with human rights legislation and conventions, and the convention is an important part of the framework within which we operate; hence the various references to Article 6 throughout the SIs.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, also asked about the composition of a court martial board in general; I think that his question related to lay personnel. This measure will have an impact only on women in the Armed Forces at ranks of OR7 and above. To help your Lordships, I asked for clarification on this. In the Royal Navy, the rank of OR7 is chief petty officer; for the Royal Marines, it is colour sergeant; for the Army, it is staff colour sergeant; and, for the Royal Air Force, it is flight sergeant/chief technician. Service persons below that rank are not eligible to sit as lay members. Eligibility is currently set at OR8 personnel but from January next year it will be OR7. We are broadening the scope in the hope that this will facilitate the presence of more women. Also, as I said, there will be a 12-month exemption for women who have already sat. That is important, because it is a sizeable chunk out of otherwise operational time. If any woman has sat on a court martial board for more than five working days, this provision will prevent them repeatedly sitting on boards.

This is a really important point, which, as I said, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and I were discussing. If somebody outside this Committee read our proceedings and saw the word “lay” they would assume that these people are members of the public, even though the instrument deals with non-service personnel and the military courts. The Minister putting this on the record is quite helpful for those who read our proceedings to understand exactly what we are talking about.

I thank the noble Lord. We are sometimes guilty of using vocabulary in the environment with which we are all familiar. These are lay members who are not legally qualified; they sit as a presence roughly comparable to a jury. The noble Lord is right that they are “lay” not in the sense of any members of the public coming in but in the sense that they are in the Armed Forces and not legally qualified.

I have tried to address the points that were raised; I hope that I have managed to do so. I thank your Lordships for your contributions. This instrument takes us another step forward in making our service justice system stronger, better and fairer.

Motion agreed.