Required Custodial Sentences

Part of Schedule 3 – in the House of Commons at 7:15 pm on 2 April 2001.

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Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen Labour, Leyton and Wanstead 7:15, 2 April 2001

The schedule deals with required custodial sentences from courts martial. The notion of custodial sentences without jury trials and established civilian court standards is offensive. On Second Reading, I asked my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces: Why has my hon. Friend not had a more radical look at the court martial system, particularly for serious offences? What has he got against having the equivalent of a jury trial for those serious offences, moving away from other service men considering those cases? He replied: It is simply because I am not a radical sort of fellow."—[Official Report, 9 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 898.] Clearly, a radical review did not therefore take place. However, I believe that an overall review of the operation of the system would have been preferable to the attempts to tinker with it that the Bill proposes.

I tabled an amendment, which was not selected, to propose a committee of inquiry into the system. It suggested that civilian law standards and procedures and the Human Rights Act 1998 should form part of the inquiry. The Bill represents a missed opportunity on the court martial system. It tinkers with a fundamentally unjust system that is long past its sell-by date, and it does so without an overall perspective.

In peacetime, a defendant from the armed forces should have the same rights, including human rights, as a defendant in a civilian court. Such defendants should have a jury trial, an independent judge, the ability to choose a defence lawyer and a public hearing. That should apply especially when custodial sentences could be imposed. Trials for civilian offences should take place in a civilian, not a military, court. Other less serious matters should be subject to internal disciplinary rules and procedures, but not disciplinary courts with legal power. They should resemble employment tribunals.

In wartime, procedures should be subject to later civil review.