Royal Navy court martial system is put on trial

Are military trials as fair as civilian ones? Andrew Buncombe reports
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The Independent Online
THE MOST thorough examination of the Royal Navy's system of criminal justice has been launched amid growing criticism that military personnel are not treated as fairly as civilians.

The Navy believes that the way it deals with offenders within the service is at least as good as that operated by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the courts.

But over the past two or three years the way the Navy - and the other services - arrest, investigate and prosecute its members has been placed under an increasingly fierce spotlight. The European Court of Human Rights has made several decisions that question the fairness of the court martial system.

The examination, which is expected to take up to a year, is being carried out by the Institute of Police and Criminological Studies at the University of Portsmouth. The team, led by Professor Stephen Savage, has been given unprecedented access to the workings of the naval justice system, operating out of Portsmouth.

The team will look at the entire process of dealing with suspects, from their arrest, questioning and prosecution, through to the system of appeal. The team will pay particular attention to the way naval investigators question suspects and the rules governing those procedures.

"The Navy has been very positive about the whole thing," said Professor Savage. "There is certainly a degree of confidence within the Navy about their system. It has been a case of 'Come and have a look and see if you can make any suggestions for improvement.'"

The team expects to make a series of recommendations, which the Navy has said will be considered by the Second Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Brigstocke. "There would be no point in having the team do the study if we were not going to listen to what they had to say," said Commander Nick Hawkins, head of the Naval Prosecuting Authority, the equivalent of the CPS.

"Our standpoint is that our system is very fair, but we accept that nothing is perfect and there may be some things we can do better.

"Our system has been under the spotlight over the past few years, but we are happy to let the team look at whatever it wants."

Recent criticism of the justice system operated by the services has focused largely on a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in February last year which condemned the court-martial system.

A Falklands veteran, Alex Findlay, who had been dismissed from the Army after putting his handgun to the head of a colleague and firing into a television set, successfully claimed the court-martial system had not offered him the same protection that he would have received from a civil court. In particular, it ignored the fact that he was suffering from post- traumatic stress disorder.

The court criticised the role of the convening officer, a major-general responsible for selecting the prosecuting officer and other members of the courts martial. The system has since been changed.

There have also been a number of fly-on-the-wall documentaries that have shown the system in a less than flattering light.

Mr Findlay's lawyer, John Mackenzie, said that the system of military justice was ripe for review. He questioned the impartiality of courts martial, the treatment of suspects under arrest and the way they are questioned.