On 8th February 2021
the Armed Forces Bill 2021 had its second reading in the House of Commons.
Opening the debate Johnny Mercer, Minister of State for Defence People and
Veterans (late 29 Commando Regiment, Royal Artillery) noted that “the Bill
of Rights of 1688 required Parliament to pass an Act every five years to
maintain a standing army” and that ‘the raising or keeping a standing
army within the United Kingdom…in time of peace, unless it be with the consent
of Parliament, is against the law’.
In 2021, Parliament now reviews
what has evolved into the Armed Forces Act 2006, the statutory underpinning of
the Service Justice System, which Mr Mercer rightly called “essential for
our forces to act effectively, and a vital bulwark of our democracy.” The
Bill has been eagerly awaited by practitioners and observers following
publication of the Service Justice Review, otherwise known as the Lyons Report.
The Lyons Report made a number of recommendations, some of which would begin to
correct historic deficiencies in the Service Justice System and others which
were ill-advised to say the least.
Despite a threat of Judicial
Review by the campaigning group The Centre for Military Justice, the most
ill-advised proposal, to remove offences of murder and manslaughter, serious
sexual offences and domestic violence committed in the UK from the jurisdiction
of the Service Justice System, will not go ahead. The refusal to implement this
recommendation is eminently sensible as it would have left the Service Justice
System de-skilled in dealing with these offences, as the majority of the Armed
Forces are now based in the UK, but still responsible for prosecuting the
offences outside the UK.
For more than 15 years this issue
has been dealt with by a protocol between the Director of Service Prosecutions
and the Director of Public Prosecutions. Clause 7 formalises that process and
requires similar protocols between the Director of Service Prosecutions and the
Lord Advocate and the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. It
remains to be seen how this will impact on the number cases retained within the
Service Justice System and what impact this will have on skill sets of the
Service Prosecution Authority and the Service Police.
Constitution of the Court Martial
The most obvious changes will be
to the constitution of the Court Martial. Boards will now consist of either
three or six members, although a six person board may continue with five
members by judicial direction, and those of substantive OR-7 rank will now be permitted
to sit on boards. Whilst a three person board to deal with offences carrying a
maximum sentence of less than 7 years remains as problematic as ever, these
changes represent a step towards the 12 person, all ranks, military juries that
are a feature of the United States’ system. The inclusion of OR-7s (chief petty
officers, colour sergeants (Royal Marines), staff sergeants and flight
sergeants) is a step towards the judgement of their peers it remains to be seen
if OR-7s will feel able to act with sufficient independence bearing in mind the
presidency of the Board remains the preserve of lieutenant commanders, majors
and squadron leaders. This is likely to be a particular issue in the Royal Navy
where OR-7s are usually younger and with less service than the other services.
Meanwhile, changes are afoot on
the bench as another recommendation of the Lyons Report is implemented,
amending section 362 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 to permit the Lord Chief
Justice, at the request of the Judge Advocate General to nominate Circuit
judges as well as High Court judges to sit as judge advocates. The rationale
for this recommendation was apparently to ensure the public do not think the
Service Justice System is a military “closed shop”. Given all judge advocates
are recommended for appointment by the same commission which recommends
appointments of Circuit Judges, and all judge advocates sit in the Crown Court
in any event it is not clear how such a public perception was sustainable. Not
to mention the fact there are eight, rarely used, deputy judge advocate
generals including two who are Circuit judges available as well. When one
considers that the power to nominate a High Court judge has been used only a
handful of times and that the new protocol will likely reduce the amount of
work that might merit the deployment of either a Circuit or High Court judge
this reform appears to be little more than window dressing and rather
discourteous to the incumbent judge advocates. Although it would allow the
Judge Advocate General to cover sick leave in a new way.
Simple majority verdicts for all
offences have long been a concern and proved a surprisingly resilient to
challenge, leaving service personnel without the protections provided in
civilian life. However, a major step in the right direction is taken in this
Bill as s.160 of the 2006 act will be amended so that for the most serious
offences a qualified majority of 5:1 or 4:1 will be required, bringing the
Service Justice System more in line with the Crown Court. However, service
personnel charged with offences where a civilian could elect Crown Court trial
remain at risk of conviction and imprisonment by a simple majority. It is
interesting to note that in rejecting the last challenge to the simple majority
verdict in Blackman the Court Martial Appeal Court concluded that
avoiding “hung boards” was a good reason to treat service personnel
differently. However, this change implicitly creates the risk of “hung boards”
so we must conclude that Her Majesty’s Government respectfully disagrees.
A series of changes to sentencing
are also made by the Bill. A long-standing gap in the Court Martial’s
sentencing powers is closed as the power to disqualify from driving is brought
in. It was always unclear why the Court Martial was not empowered to disqualify
even when dealing with the most serious driving offences. However, there
appears to be an error in clause 14(5) which specifies the uplift period when
disqualification is coupled with Service Detention. The period is set at half
the period of detention (so the disqualification starts on release) but the
release provisions for Service Detention rarely permit detention at the halfway
There are obvious risks to
operational effectiveness if a service person is disqualified from driving.
This will doubt less give rise to submissions in relation to the Service
Interest. How rigorously the Court Martial Appeal Court will apply the
analogous principles of exceptional hardship will be interesting to see.
A further change is the power to
make deprivation orders depriving offenders of property used in the course of
an offence. This aligns the Court Martial with the Crown Court but perhaps
surprisingly is extended to Summary Hearings. This means that the Commanding
Officer, sitting in a jurisdiction which is accepted as not being compliant
with Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, will have the power
to make deprivation orders and determine disputes as to ownership of the
property in question. It is not clear what remedy a third party claiming
ownership of the property would have. The 2006 Act will be amended to make
clear deprivation is a punishment, meaning there is an automatic right of
appeal for the service person. However, the Bill does not require the Secretary
of State to provide for an appeals procedure in the Regulations. This will no
doubt provide for some interesting litigation!
The final change to sentencing
comes in relation to the Royal Marines. Clause 12 permits a commanding officer
to sentence a corporal (Royal Marines) to detention. This aligns with the
powers of a commanding officer elsewhere in the Royal Navy who can detain a
leading rate. It also aligns the powers of a Royal Navy commanding officer with
that of the Royal Air Force. However, the Army continues to permit the
commanding officer only to detain lance corporals (or equivalent) and
Two changes are made post
sentence. Firstly clause 17 amends the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 to
specify a six month period of rehabilitation for those sentenced to a Severe
Reprimand or a Reprimand. Secondly, amendments have been made to s.164 of the Policing and Crime Act 2017.
It is this second change which is perhaps most significant as these changes permit
posthumous pardons for historical service offences under the Army Discipline
and Regulation Act 1879, the Articles of War of 1749 and the Articles of
War of 1878. This will be a way for families to seek to redress historic wrongs
and potentially seek the return of medals and pension payments. However, the
convictions will remain.
These changes will dovetail with commitment of Her
Majesty’s Government to return decorations to those who were convicted of
offences relating to homosexuality before the ban of homosexuals serving in HM
Forces was finally lifted in 2000.
Clause 4 provides for a slip rule in Summary Hearings,
preventing the need to apply to the Summary Appeal Court to correct mistakes of
law which could be corrected in the Magistrates’ Court under s.142 of the
Magistrates’ Court Act 1980. A similar rule is also to be introduced for the
Summary Appeal Court and the Service Civilian Court by clauses 5 and 6. This
brings these courts into line with the Court Martial and is particularly timely
given the case of R v McIntyre  EWCA Crim 1297 which reminded
everyone of the complexity of sentencing in the Service Justice System.
A concerning reform is found in clause 10 which
reduces the time to lodge an appeal against a outcome of a Service Complaint from
six to two weeks and similarly reduces the time available to lodge a complaint
with the Ombudsman. This is said to be part of ‘part of wider reforms to increase efficiency and speed
up the process within the statutory service complaints system’ and reduce
‘speculative appeals’. However, anyone familiar with the Service Complaints
will no doubt regard this as an effort to make it harder for those wronged by
the system to seek redress.
Police Complaints Commissioner
Another Lyons Report recommendation,
clause 11 creates a much needed source of independent oversight for the Service
Police. How robust the oversight will be but it is to be welcomed. Particularly
following the stubborn refusal of the Provost Marshals to come into line with
their civilian colleagues when comes to handling interviews under caution
during the Pandemic.
Finally, Clause 8 requires a specified person or body
exercising a relevant housing, education or healthcare function, to have due
regard to the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant. This will hopefully give
some bite to the Covenant and provide assistance to those who have served and
continue to serve in HM Forces.
There is much to welcome in the Bill, particularly around the constitution
of the board which give service personnel some of the protections they would
enjoy in civilian life. However, there remains much to be done. Several of the
more ill-advised recommendations of the Lyons Report, such as the abolition of
appeals in preliminary proceedings and the restrictions on which offences can
be tried in the Service Justice System remain and can be brought in by
secondary legislation or administratively. It is important that the case for a
robust, expert, fair and independent Service Justice System continues to be
made in both Houses of Parliament and in the courts.