European ruling causes suspension of courts martial

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Britain's courts martial system has been suspended because a European ruling found it to be in breach of human rights laws by denying members of the armed forces a fair trial.

The decision is expected to lead to 200 soldiers, sailors and airmen being released from disciplinary charges and many others having their convictions quashed on appeal.

Ten courts martial centres across the country have been temporarily shut while Ministry of Defence lawyers grapple with the implications of the judgment by the European Court of Human Rights.

Seven judges found on Tuesday that the system for disciplining soldiers was neither impartial nor independent because junior officers were susceptible to pressure from more senior staff and any decision the tribunal made could be overruled by a reviewing authority.

Yesterday, the MoD confirmed there would be no courts martial sitting for the foreseeable future. An MoD spokeswoman said: "The suspension will be reviewed on a week by week basis until we decide what to do next. If we do decide to make changes then there may be an impact on those already charged."

The civilian judges who sit on the military tribunals, first introduced in 1997 to remedy earlier judicial criticism from Strasbourg, have been told to stand down until further notice.

Last year, about 750 armed forces personnel faced disciplinary hearings under the courts martial system.

John Mackenzie, the solicitor who brought the European court case, said the ruling had thrown the armed forces' disciplinary system into disarray leaving any past or future defendant able to claim that his or her court martial was unlawful. The case also questions the legality of the military law Army communities are subject to in places such as Germany.

Mr Mackenzie expected the military to look to civilian courts to take over the running of the courts martial system. "There are only about 200 to 300 hearings a year, which could be easily accommodated at two crown court centres," he suggested.

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

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.

The case is particularly worrying to the Ministry of Defence because the Army had already introduced changes to the courts martial system after a similar finding against the Government in 1997.

Mr Mackenzie said two Welsh Guardsmen, who had been held in military custody under the "flawed" system, would be the first to bring compensation claims for wrongful imprisonment. The MoD has been building up its military legal service division, which now employs about 100 lawyers, as well as investing in new centres.

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