Labour backs civilian court trials for rape and serious offences in military

Elliot Chappell
© Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

Labour is planning to amend the armed forces bill to ensure that rape and other serious offences are investigated and tried through civilian courts when they are committed in the UK in a bid to improve access to justice for service personnel.

Commenting ahead of an oral evidence hearing session for the armed forces bill select committee this afternoon, Labour’s Stephen Morgan described the conviction rate for such offences in military courts as “shamefully low”.

According to official figures for the period 2015 to 2019, the conviction rate for rape cases tried under courts martial was 10%. During the same period, the rate was 59% in civilian courts with considerably more cases being tried each year.

Labour has highlighted evidence showing that 48% of sexual assaults in the armed forces in 2019 took place in the UK and more than three quarters of the victims were women. Almost half of the victims held the rank of private.

“Yet the government has refused to ensure these cases are investigated and tried in civilian courts, ignoring the recommendations of a judge-led inquiry,” the armed forces shadow minister said this afternoon.

“Trying the most serious offences in civilian courts would help improve conviction rates, but ministers refuse to recognise this reality and seem content with a fudge that will leave personnel vulnerable.

“Labour wants the government’s armed forces bill to provide appropriate support, protection and access to justice for our armed forces.”

The military justice system in the UK exists alongside the civilian courts system and is able to investigate and try the most serious criminal offences involving military personnel.

Labour’s amendment would challenge the government to recognise calls from campaigners, as well as recommendations from a government-commissioned, judge-led review into the service justice system.

The 2017 Lyons review recommended that “the court martial jurisdiction should no longer include murder, manslaughter and rape when these offences are committed in the UK, except when the consent of the attorney general is given”.

Ministers rejected the recommendations last year, arguing that the military justice system is “capable of dealing with the most serious offences and should be able to continue to do so”. This prompted a legal challenge from three victims.

Three women serving in the armed forces began legal action in May 2020 aimed at preventing the military courts from trying UK rape cases, complaining at the time that the conviction rate is five to six times lower than in civilian courts.

The move from Labour follows the claim from veterans minister Johnny Mercer during the second reading of the armed forces bill that the review had not recommended that rape, murder and manslaughter be dealt with by civilian courts.

Challenged by Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey during the debate on why the government had not accepted the recommendation in the independent review, Mercer argued: “We cannot reject a recommendation that did not exist.”

The Centre for Military Justice, which is representing the three women, has written to the Ministry of Defence calling for the minister to urgently and publicly clarify his remarks. The Ministry of Defence has refused to do so.

“The Lyons review did not recommend cases of murder, manslaughter and rape should not be tried in the service justice system, but that the consent of the attorney general should be required in these instances,” a spokesperson said.

Senior figures including Lyons, former judge advocate general Jeff Blackett, judge advocate general Alan Large and the director of service prosecutions Jonathan Rees QC will give oral evidence to the bill select committee this afternoon.

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