Required Custodial Sentences

Part of Schedule 3 – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 2 April 2001.

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Photo of Dr Lewis Moonie Dr Lewis Moonie Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (Veterans) 7:45, 2 April 2001

We think about the courts martial system very carefully whenever such Bills are considered and at other times. We are well aware that the system that we apply to our armed forces is different from that which we apply to the civilian population, but I happen to believe that it is pretty fair and that the safeguards that we built into the Bill last year have made it still fairer. That, surely, is the object of the exercise. The truth should be discovered and discovered in a fair way. Although I fully appreciate the emotional and intellectual attachment of my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen) to the jury system, I cannot say that I particularly share it. The system has served us well for many years. Other systems serve other countries equally well, or, some might argue, better.

I want to make some specific points about courts martial. They are held in public and are therefore open to public scrutiny. Defendants choose their own lawyers. An appeal against court martial findings can be made to the Courts-Martial Appeal Court, which is made up of civilian judges. With regard to overseas offences, certain very serious offences committed in the United Kingdom, such as murder and rape, must be tried by a civil court, but that court cannot deal with offences committed abroad.

One purpose of trying very serious offences committed abroad by means of court martial is to safeguard service personnel from local law, which may not be governed by the European convention. Sierra Leone provides an example of that. The schedule would bring all disciplinary offences and trials within the provisions of the convention.

We take many considerations into account in drawing up proposals to be included in armed forces Bills. As I have said, we certainly take account of the scope for bringing court martial procedures more into line with the corresponding procedures in civil courts, without affecting the principles that apply. In this Bill, for example, we have allowed for the possibility of review of unduly lenient sentences, for costs orders, and for the possibility of bail following appeal.

We propose those changes because they will benefit the operation of the system, and make it fairer. They have not been dreamt up in isolation; they reflect provisions that already operate in the civilian system. This is part of a long-standing policy of keeping in step with the civilian criminal justice arrangements, where it is sensible and practical to do so.