Court martials in Britain 'breach human rights'

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The Independent Online

The court-martial system in Britain is in breach of human rights laws, seven European judges ruled yesterday in a case that could lead to major changes in the way members of the armed forces are disciplined.

Dean Morris, 26, a former soldier serving with the Household Cavalry, was awarded £18,000 by the European Court of Human Rights, which found that his court martial had been "fundamentally flawed".

The court said that junior army staff who sat on the original tribunal panel that found Mr Morris guilty were open to outside pressure from more senior officers.

The judges said they were particularly concerned that the junior officers on the panel had no legal training and that they remained subject to army discipline and reports. "The fundamental flaws which had been identified were not corrected by the applicant's subsequent appeal to the Court Martial Appeal Court, since that appeal did not involve any rehearing of the case," they said.

The case will be of particular concern to the Ministry of Defence, because it has already introduced changes to the court-martial system after a similar finding against the Government in 1997.

Mr Morris claimed he became the target of bullying while in the Household Cavalry. In 1992, he was injured when he was knocked off his horse by another soldier. Fearing a further attack, he ran away from the Army. He was arrested four years later, charged with being absent without leave and remanded by his Commanding Officer for trial by district court martial on 13 March 1997.

His court martial was overseen by a Lieutenant Colonel, two captains, and a legally qualified civilian judge advocate.

Yesterday's judgment acknowledged that changes had been made to the court-martial system in the UK that had done much to meet human rights concerns. The role of "prosecutory and adjudicatory" functions at courts martial had been separated, and the courtroom roles of some serving officers at such trials abolished.

"However, the court considers the presence of these safeguards was insufficient to exclude the risk of outside pressure being brought to bear on two relatively junior serving officers who sat on the applicant's (Mr Morris's) court martial," the judgement said.

Mr Morris took his case to Strasbourg after being refused leave to appeal against his dismissal from the Army and nine months' detention.

The human rights judges said his misgivings about the independence of his court martial and its status as a "tribunal" were "objectively justified" and awarded him £18,000 for legal costs and expenses.

They ruled that Britain had violated Article Six of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that "everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing ... by an independent and impartial tribunal".

A spokeswoman for the MoD said it was too early to say whether the Government would need to make fundamental changes to the court-martial system. "We are looking at the decision at the judgment and what implications might result from that decision," she said.

Yesterday's case is the latest in a series of legal actions by former armed forces personnel to come before the Strasbourg court in the last five years. An important test case by the Falklands veteran Alex Findlay in 1997 paved the way for scores of people to challenge the fairness of the British system.

The court at that time also ruled that Britain had infringed Article Six of the human rights code. The central role of the "convening officer" – a senior officer under whom the defendant has served and who runs the court martial – in particular breached the requirement of impartiality, it said.