Military Personnel (Court Cases)

Oral Answers to Questions — Solicitor-General – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 24th March 2005.

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Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle 11:30 am, 24th March 2005

How many times since 2001 the Attorney-General has decided to bring cases involving military personnel through the civilian courts.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Solicitor General (Law Officers), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Between 2001 and 2004, the Attorney-General transferred no cases involving military personnel to civilian courts. Since 2004, there have been two cases where he has decided, with the agreement of the Army Prosecuting Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service, that the appropriate jurisdiction should be the civilian system.

Photo of Gordon Prentice Gordon Prentice Labour, Pendle

I am grateful for that answer but may I ask my friend whether it is standard practice that, where a case against a soldier has been dismissed as unfounded by his commanding officer and the case nevertheless goes to trial in the civilian courts, the commanding officer is asked to give evidence?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Solicitor General (Law Officers), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

If a case goes before a Crown court in England and Wales in relation to an indictment of offences alleged to have been committed by Army service personnel serving overseas, the question whether the commanding officer will give evidence depends on whether he has evidence that is relevant to whether the offence has been committed.

Photo of Mr John Burnett Mr John Burnett Shadow Minister, Home Affairs, Shadow Solicitor General, Law Officers (Constitutional Affairs)

Our troops can be deployed in all-out combat and, within days or a shorter period, on internal security operations. Cases are sometimes dismissed by commanding officers and unit commanders. What safeguards are there against double jeopardy and what account is taken of the unique stress and dangers that confront our armed forces on active service?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Solicitor General (Law Officers), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman's question, I believe that he will be retiring should there be a general election and that it may be the last time that he asks a question as spokesperson for his party. I should like to say that it has been a great pleasure to work with him and I wish him all the best.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question, there is no double jeopardy. If a serving member of Army personnel is brought before a court martial and he is acquitted, there are no further proceedings. Under the doctrine of autrefois acquit, he will not face any other tribunals. Similarly, there are no further proceedings if he is convicted. Therefore, there is no question of double jeopardy. Of course, if a matter is referred to the Attorney-General, in deciding whether it is appropriate to refer it to the CPS, my noble and learned Friend and the CPS will look at all the relevant circumstances, but it is important that the rule of law applies to serving personnel whether they are in the UK or outside it on duty.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Attorney General

The Solicitor-General will be aware that, in both cases, the reason for the transfer to civilian courts was that the commanding officers ruled that the person should not be prosecuted in military courts. She may agree that that has the unintended consequence of depriving those soldiers of the opportunity of trial by court martial, which exists for the very reason that it is considered to be a forum that will best understand the pressures that soldiers may be under, particularly in combat. Do we not therefore have an anomalous situation? If the commanding officer's veto is there for a good reason, the Attorney-General should not be doing what he is doing. If there is not a good reason for that veto, should we not be changing the law?

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Solicitor General (Law Officers), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

No, we should not. The situation is not anomalous; it is one of concurrent jurisdiction. Therefore, proceedings can go ahead either in courts martial or in a civilian court. However, there can be many reasons why it is regarded as not appropriate to take a case before a court martial and why it is believed that the civilian courts are the better tribunal to deal with the matter. I do not think that that needs to be changed.