Q We will now hear from His Honour Judge Jeff Blackett, who very recently retired as Judge Advocate General. We have until 4 o’clock for this session. Welcome, Judge. Would you care to introduce yourself for the benefit of the Committee?
Q Hi, Judge Blackett. Thank you for coming in today. We have had broad discussions along this issue already, so I will not reheat any of those. What would you do within the art of what is possible? There are plenty of ideas—taking out the six-year limit, applying it to one set of claimants and so on—but within the art of the possible and the strategic aim of the Bill, what would you do to improve it?
That has gone to the end of where I was going to speak, because I was going to start off by saying that I think the Bill does not do what it is trying to do. My concern relates to investigations, not prosecutions; but there are a number of issues, and I think you and I have discussed some of them.
The first thing I would do is apply section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 to the military. That puts a six-month time limit on summary matters, and I would extend that to be matters that were de minimis—there would have to be a test of de minimis. Interestingly enough, halfway through my time as the Judge Advocate General, I issued a practice memorandum, which effectively incorporated that into the court martial. Following Danny Boy, the only offences that could be brought to trial were common assaults, and they were not, because the Army Prosecuting Authority followed my practice memorandum. The Ministry of Defence at the time were not in favour of that, and they challenged. Unfortunately I had to withdraw that practice memorandum.
That would deal with minor cases, and there are lots of minor cases. The sorts of things that IHAT was dealing with were that there would be a complaint that appeared to fall at the upper end of the spectrum. There would be an investigation. It would find that the allegations had been wildly exaggerated and end up finding that the most serious offence might have been an attempted actual bodily harm. In cases like that there should be a limitation period. So that is my first thing.
The second thing is that I would have judicial oversight of investigations. I introduced something called “Better Case Management in the Court Martial”, towards the end of my time as the Judge Advocate General. That puts time limits on investigations. The most important thing about it is that a case, early on, goes before a judge, and a judge then sets out a timetable of what various things should do. If section 127 of the MCA was brought into force, and the case dealt with de minimis, he could then say, “This is de minimis; stop the investigation.” So you need some mechanism, and judicial oversight. In my opinion, you could do that.
Thirdly, I would look at legal aid and funding. We have to remember that Northmoor and IHAT were set up by the British Government, and were funded by the British Government. The ambulance-chasing solicitors—people like Phil Shiner—used public money to pursue the means. I think you need to look at how legal aid is approved in those matters, and whether complainants should be funded, and the bar for funding them and their solicitors should be set higher.
So those are three areas. Finally, I would raise the bar for reinvestigation, or investigation. Having said that, there were only two courts martial where people were acquitted where there was a reinvestigation, but I would raise the bar for reinvestigation as well. So those are four practical matters that I think the Bill should concentrate on, rather than prosecution.
Q One of the difficulties I think people like me face is that we have had General Parker, x-Armed Forces Ministers and others, saying that this and that should happen; why, over the last 10 or 15 years have none of these things been done?
I think in terms of the six-month time limit, there were lawyers in the MOD who said that we did not put that in the Armed Forces Act 2006. There are commanding officers who do not want to be limited, because sometimes they need more time. In terms of better case management, I think that the MOD thinks that is a good idea, but I did not come to it until quite late in my time.
I will say one thing, though. In terms of IHAT and Northmoor, as the Judge Advocate General I wanted to be more involved, but I was kept out—properly, I suppose, because I might have to try the cases in the end. We expected a lot of cases to come out of those two matters, and as you know, not a single case came out of them, which tells its own story.
Thank you, Q Judge Blackett, for being so willing to come before the Committee to hear our concerns and to help us improve the Bill. You described the Bill as ill conceived. Can you explain why you had that view?
Yes. Perhaps I can say this. I wondered why, in the face of all the opposition—there is huge opposition, from various bodies—the Government seemed intent to pursue this particular issue. I have three concerns about the Bill. One is the presumption against prosecution, one is the wording in clause 3(2)(a), and the other is the requirement for Attorney General consent.
I listened very carefully to what Johnny Mercer said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights a couple of days ago. He described a pathway that goes from civil claims for compensation. That becomes allegations of criminal behaviour. That leads to investigation. That leads to re-investigation. I think that is the pathway you described, Mr Mercer. He said the lock was a presumption against prosecution, and Attorney General consent. I can understand, looking back, how you might get to that, but I think that logic is flawed, because actually he agreed that the issue of concern is investigations, which is my concern as well, and the length of time they take. He accepted, as he would, that all allegations must be investigated. That acceptance and a presumption against prosecution just do not equate, in my terms.
Let us look at some statistics. In my time as JAG, we have had eight trials involving overseas operations, with 27 defendants, of whom 10 were convicted. There were obviously trials. I did the two murder trials. The first murder trial was about the murder of a chap called Nadhem Abdullah by 3 Para. That was a case called Evans. The events took place in 2003; the trial was in 2005. In the case of Blackman, Marine A, the unlawful killing took place in 2011; he and two others were tried in 2013. So the system worked and due process went along. There were eight trials.
At the same time, there were 3,400 allegations in IHAT and 675 allegations in Northmoor. We all know how long they took, and nothing came out of them. So I agree wholeheartedly with what the Minister is trying to do. I am absolutely behind protecting service personnel. I simply do not believe this Bill does it, because I cannot see that a bar on prosecution or—sorry—a presumption against prosecution is going to stop the ambulance chasing that the Government are so worried about.
My second concern, of course, was the International Criminal Court. Take a case like Blackman, for instance, where there was a video of him shooting somebody. Had that come to light over five years later and there was a presumption against prosecution, first of all, the investigation would have taken place. The prosecutor could have said, “The presumption exists. Therefore I am not going to prosecute.” That would lead to a victim right of review, perhaps. More importantly, it would lead the International Criminal Court to say, “You are unable or unwilling—article 17 of the Rome statute—to prosecute. Therefore we’ll take this and we’ll put him to The Hague.” That is a real concern of mine.
The prosecutor could decide there is a case to answer, but he would send it to the Attorney General, and the Attorney General says either, “Prosecute”—in which case, so what?—or no, and you have exactly the same thing: judicial review of his decision by all sorts of people, and the International Criminal Court saying, again, “You are unable or unwilling.”
In my view, what this Bill does is exactly the opposite of what it is trying to do. What it is trying to do is to stop ambulance-chasing solicitors and vexatious and unmeritorious claims. The Minister quite rightly said we want rigour and integrity. What it actually does is increase the risk of service personnel appearing before the International Criminal Court. That is why I said it was ill conceived.
Q Thank you for that thorough and comprehensive answer. You mentioned earlier being kept out of discussions. One theme that has come out from the witnesses over the last few days has been about more engagement and consultation on what the Bill is trying to do and its contents. Is it unusual for someone in your position not to be formally consulted on the Bill’s contents?
No. My office is nearly always consulted on legislation, particularly when I went through the 2006 Act. I was heavily involved in that and, subsequently, with the other quinquennial reviews. I do not understand why my office was not consulted. There have been occasions in the past where paperwork has got lost when we have been consulted. I personally was not, but my office dealt with it. That was not the case here—we simply were not consulted.
I would have hoped that we could have influenced the Bill, because I think a Bill is a good idea, but it has to have the right contents. Had I been able to have an input, perhaps on the format as I have just described, I do not know whether it would all have made it into the Bill, but at least it could have been discussed.
Q On a point of clarification, you said it is very unusual for you not to be consulted, but you started off by saying you were not consulted on any of the other investigations when they were set up. Is that correct?
That is a different matter. That is apples and pears. I am consulted on policy development, even though I am an independent judge. In terms of individual cases then clearly—and properly, at the time—I was not consulted. I was going to have to deal with the serious matters that came out of it, so I was not consulted. I was told that there might be a case—“There is possibly a case. Can you clear seven weeks in the diary to sit in a case, sometime in the future?”—but I was not consulted about how the investigations were going on.
Q Thank you for clarifying that. You mentioned some practical steps that you wanted to put in the Bill. I am by no means a legal expert, so for clarity could you explain, are they steps that you have the power to put in or would they require an Act of Parliament to go through for them to be put into place?
Section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act would require legislation to apply to the armed forces. As I told you, I issued a practice memorandum many years ago to try to do that, which the MOD objected to and it had to be withdrawn. Legal aid funding for victims and ambulance-chasing lawyers, to use the expression that has been used, would need some legislation. On raising the bar for the investigation, the wording in the Bill might do that, but perhaps it would require legislation. Judicial oversight of investigations, particularly overseas operations, would require legislation.
The process that you describe goes on all the time, but not in particular for overseas operations. There is a quinquennial review of the Armed Forces Act. I am consulted and have the ability to input issues. For example, I have been concerned for a long time about service personnel who are convicted in the court martial of causing death by dangerous driving. We had a number of those with servicemen overseas. The court martial had no power to disqualify them from driving, and I had a real concern that they would come back, serve their time, go straight on the road and kill somebody else. I have been trying to get something like that into the Armed Forces Act.
The process takes ages. I would start off 15 years ago saying, “I don’t think this should be in the Act.” It is not agreed by the policy people within the MOD, for all sorts of reasons. We go round and round in circles, miss one Act and then another Act. Hopefully, it is going to be in the 2021 Act. That goes on all the time. I am proactive in dealing with matters around trial process.
Q I am certainly not knocking your work ethic or your proactive approach, but was anything formally put into the MOD with recommendations for overseas operations that ended with Ministers?
No. I am sure other people have similar ideas—I have not got all the good ideas—but I was not asked, so I did not put anything in. That was until I became aware of the Bill—too late, but probably my fault—and at that stage I wrote to the Secretary of State and raised my concerns.
Q I get that. I came into Parliament at the end of 2019 as a veteran, wondering why soldiers have been prosecuted and gone through everything they have. I understand your points, and there are a lot of good ideas here, but Parliament has been going for many years and I wonder why it has taken till now to get to this situation. I have a fear, as we heard from the veteran community, that the Bill would get stopped. What I really want to find out is whether anybody has thought of this before. It is without a doubt a hard subject to address. Is it too hard? Has anyone sat down and said, “We want to put this through”?
Not to my knowledge. It needs political will, of course, and if you go back to IHAT and Northmoor, you start with the Baha Mousa concerns where we had a court martial where seven people were tried, one pleaded guilty to an ICC Act offence and all the rest were acquitted when clearly the British Army had been responsible for killing an individual over a three-day period. The court martial did not resolve in a conviction.
Following that, we had all the cases from a solicitor who in those days was well respected, so nobody questioned his motivation on the allegations he was raising. That subsequently turned out to be wrong. I think the issue then was the British Government thinking, “If we have got systemic abuse by the British forces overseas, we have got to do something about it.” Hence they set up Northmoor. That was really the focus.
Not in its present form, no. The court martial system demonstrates that we have, to use the Minister’s words, “rigour and integrity”. We have got to move faster and we have got to investigate quicker. The issue is not the court martial system; the issue is IHAT and Northmoor, and that is nothing to do with the court martial system.
The Bill is effectively looking at the wrong end of the telescope. It is looking at the prosecution end, and you have got to remember that you do not prosecute until you investigate—and you have got to investigate. This will not stop people being investigated and it will not stop people being re-investigated and investigated again. Lots of investigations do not go anywhere, but the people who are investigated do not see that.
The fact is that, as you know, of the 3,400 cases, or whatever it was, at IHAT, not a single one has been prosecuted—not one. But the issue for those being investigated is dreadful. That is their complaint. Now, I understand that with high-profile cases like Blackman—Marine A—there are a lot of veterans who think we should not even prosecute that because they say he was doing his job and it is wrong to prosecute him. That is clearly wrong. When you have an offence as blatant as that, it must be prosecuted; otherwise we are undermining the rule of law and what we stand for in Britain.
Q I slightly disagree. I do not believe that veterans want amnesty—perhaps a small percentage. If something has gone wrong, professional soldiers, men and women, would expect or want that to be followed through.
Finally—I am not sure whether you heard the last witness—
I asked him how the 5,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and the 20,000 overall veterans he has contact with would feel if the Bill were stopped. I do not know whether you heard his answer.
I believe in a Bill with some of the items that I have suggested. What I would say is that the Bill should be stopped, rewritten and, when it addresses the problem, brought back. What would I say to those 5,000 veterans? I would explain that the Bill as it stands will make life worse, not better, and therefore we will look at it again, trying to bring something back that would satisfy your concerns.
Q The Minister asked you why advice over the past 15 or 16 years had not been heeded. Are you confident that your advice, and the evidence that you have given to the Committee today, will be heeded?
You are asking me what is probably a loaded political question. I would hope so, and when I met the Minister, Johnny Mercer—not in this forum, but in a more discursive one—he was very interested in some of my options, and I think he asked staff to look at them. I do not know how far that has gone, and I do not know whether any will be brought back, but I hope that, given my experience—
Q So were you surprised not to see any change, or any of this within the Bill that was presented?
Q I was going to ask about the re-investigations, but we have already covered that, so I will move on. Do you have any concerns about part 2 of the Bill?
The previous witness talked about the inability of service personnel to sue, because of the six years. It is rather like going back to section 10 of the Crown Proceedings Act 1947. That is not really my area of law, so perhaps I am not the right witness to deal with it. I said to the Secretary of State that I thought it was injudicious, but there are better minds than mine who can apply that.
One bizarre thing is that, if this Bill becomes law, there is a six-year time limit but the Attorney General may give consent to a prosecution. Then, clearly, one of the things that the criminal court would be doing is awarding compensation, if there was a conviction. There would still be issues in relation to personal injury claims, which would come through the criminal court rather than the civil court, if it got to prosecution. However, I do not think I am the right person to answer those questions.
Q In your letter to the Secretary of State you said:
“The bill as drafted is not the answer.”
You have been very clear on that today. You have made four suggestions there. I can see a problem with the legal aid one, but the other three relate to procedure for criminal trials in the service justice system. Could they be incorporated into the Bill?
Yes. If you need legislation, you can use any legislative vehicle, can you not? Certainly, I would have thought that applying the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980 one, which is applying a six-month time limit to summary-only matters, would be extended. It would need more wording because I believe that should be extended to what should be called de minimis. De minimis claims probably need to be taken before the judge who is overseeing it so he can say, “This is de minimis.” Then, a great raft of those allegations in IHAT and Northmoor would have gone with that.
Q That would clear out a lot of frivolous and vexatious cases, the difference being that it would not be about a presumption not to prosecute. An independent legal body—a judge or a magistrate—would make that decision. That is the important thing there. It is not the chain of command or the MOD making that decision, or the Attorney General. It is independent legal—
The way I described it when we had our meeting with the Minister was relating to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. They can look at what is a miscarriage of justice and put it back to the Court of Appeal, but they have a very high bar. It was extracting that sort of test and applying it on the other side in relation to investigations. Having said that, there have been only two reinvestigations following acquittals in my time, and both of those determined that there was no further evidence and therefore it did not come back to court. However, the individual accused, who had been acquitted, had to go through all the problems that we heard the last witness talk about.
Q I am aware of the criminal case review because I have just been involved with the Post Office Horizon cases that are going before that. It is a high test to get them there, but it does give that. I will come on to one of your third points in a minute, but the issue that has come out throughout all the evidence that we have taken so far is around investigation and—I think this came through from the last witness—the trauma, not only for individuals but for families, because things are taking too long, although the two cases you mentioned were done quite quickly. In terms of judicial oversight, can you explain how that would work?
In my view, you have an allocated judge—probably a judge advocate—who the investigators can come to and say, “This is what we have. We have one person saying ‘He raped me 10 years ago.’ We have no other evidence. We have interviewed her and we think”—she is lying, she is telling the truth, or whatever. The judge can then take a view, rather than the current system at IHAT. It became rather like a fishing expedition, where an allegation came in and they spent ages fishing for more evidence around the allegation. It needs, I think, judicial oversight to say, “Stop fishing, you have had enough time. This clearly will not get anywhere near a conviction and therefore stop the investigation now.”
No, no. It is basically judicial supervision. It comes back to what I was saying about better case management in the court martial, which is the system we introduced not that long ago, where early on in the investigation, before the investigation is complete, the case is put before a judge. It may be that at that stage the defendant says, “I plead guilty and therefore let’s stop the investigation.” That is one way of dealing with these matters. It stops the time taken on an investigation.
On the issue around the International Criminal Court, in that case, you could argue to them that it would be judicially independent oversight, and that is the important point.Q
Can I turn to clause 3? I think it is a very strange one. It refers to “exceptional demands”, but I think your letter to the Secretary of State outlines that the service justice system already takes that into account. That is certainly why I am a big supporter of it, in the sense that it recognises the nature of military service, which of course civil courts cannot take into account. Can you talk us through your concerns about clause 3?Q
Clause 3 is engaged after five years. It seems bizarre to me that in deciding whether to prosecute, you have a post-five-year test, but not a pre-five-year test. All these matters are taken into account anyway when the service prosecutor decides whether it is in the service and public interest to prosecute. As you know, there has to be evidential sufficiency and public interest. This is effectively designing or describing what the service interest test or public interest test should be. Now, prosecutions may take place, even though a serviceman were suffering from battle fatigue, diminished responsibility—all of those things. There is still a proper prosecution and the offence or the sentence will reflect all those matters, but not the actual prosecution. This therefore seems to me unnecessary, because the service prosecuting authority exists separate from the Crown Prosecution Service because it applies the service interest test. That was my concern.
Interestingly, a number of the issues here were raised by Marine A subsequently through the Criminal Cases Review Commission and back to the Court of Appeal, and they were never raised at first instance. Had he raised them at first instance—had all the psychiatric evidence that came out eventually appeared at the start—he probably would have been charged with manslaughter rather than murder, for example. So that can assist the prosecutor in the way he moves forward.
Do you have concerns—I certainly do—that there is a danger that the way in which the Bill is constructed could give credence to some of those who are advocating the abolition of the service justice system? I am not one of those who want to do away with the service justice system, because I think it is a system that protects its unique nature.Q
I think if the Bill becomes law as it stands, then clearly there is a concern. We have seen it from all the responses to you, from Liberty and others such as Liberty, who are very concerned. Their perception is that you are protecting people from wrongdoing. I am sure their view will be that if you are protecting people from wrongdoing, you are not capable of being independent and therefore we should take all this away from you.
You have already mentioned the presumption to prosecute. I have said this before and I will say it again, but in my opinion, the Bill fails the Q Ronseal test: it does not do what it says on the tin. I find the presumption not to prosecute remarkable—the idea that you can investigate someone, but start the process with a presumption that you are not going to prosecute them. The argument made is that this will mean that people will not face courts later on. However, is it not true that this will open up an entire system of judicial reviews, not only of decisions to not prosecute, but where the Attorney General decides to?
Q Well, in terms of the way judicial review is done, if you have a presumption at the start to not prosecute and somebody then says, “We are not going to prosecute you even when we have done the investigation,” could that not lead to other court action coming in through judicial review?
You investigate on the basis that if there is sufficient evidence, it will go to the prosecuting authority and he will say either yes or no, or it will go to the Attorney General. As I said earlier, if the Director Service Prosecutions decides not to prosecute, there is a victim right of review, so there is a further process—that is, if it does not go to the International Criminal Court—and if it gets to the Attorney General, there is the option of judicial review of his decision. Yes, there is a lot of potential litigation around the Bill.
Can I add a rider to what I have just said? The Attorney General has to consent in a number of offences. As far as the court martial is concerned, the Attorney General has to consent to prosecuting any International Criminal Court Act 2001 offence—that is, genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. Under section 1A(3) of the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, he has to consent to prosecuting any grave breaches of that Act, and under section 61 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, he has to consent if a prosecution is to be brought outside of time limits. That is in relation to service personnel who have left and are no longer subject to that jurisdiction. A consent function is there in any event, and funnily enough, given that ICC Act offences and Geneva Conventions Act offences are covered by the Attorney General, a lot of this will have to go to the Attorney General anyway, without the Overseas Operations Bill.
My concern about the Attorney General’s consent is that it undermines the Director Service Prosecutions. If I were he, I would be most upset that I could not make a decision in these circumstances.
I wanted to follow up on a couple of points. Ms Monaghan asked you about the exclusion of the issue of torture. Are you satisfied by the Government’s assurances that torture and other war crimes will always be prosecuted under this Bill?Q
I think all Governments would want torture and other war crimes to be prosecuted, and if they give that indication, it is not for me to say anything else. I am satisfied by that assurance, but on the face of the Bill, there is a chance that it would not be prosecuted. That is the point.
Q Finally, would you agree that the definition of overseas operations contained in the Bill goes beyond its “on the battlefield” refrain, covering not just armed conflict but peacekeeping and overseas policing activities?
I would have to read the Bill again. It says in clause 1 what “overseas operations” means, doesn’t it? I cannot put my hand straight on it, but I am sure there is a section that describes what overseas operations are. Sorry, this is not really answering your question, but the eight cases that have come to court martial include ones that were not necessarily on the battlefield. The Breadbasket case, for instance, where soldiers were alleged—they were found guilty—to have abused civilians by stripping them naked, making them simulate sex, urinating on them, et cetera, was not on the battlefield, but it was in operations shortly after the war fighting. That does not answer the question, does it?
It does not talk about the battlefield; it talks about overseas operations. I went on a number of overseas operations in the Royal Navy, which were not a battlefield. It was never in the face of the enemy; I cannot say more than that. I would have considered myself on an operational tour when we were sailing round the West Indies, for instance, but I do not think that would be covered by the Bill. Any activity where there is effectively war fighting is what this Bill is about. That is my interpretation. It is not just about what is happening when you are firing bullets at each other; it is what is happening around it.
Q I have a supplementary question, following Kevan Jones’s question about the five-year presumption against prosecution. We do not know what we are going to come up against next year. We could go into a conflict that lasts 20, 30 or 40 years. If this Bill was introduced in 1969—the start of the Northern Ireland conflict—would veterans who are in their 80s now be getting those knocks at the door, and would they be going through the same thing?
What I am saying is that the fact that there is a presumption against prosecution would not stop the knock on the door and the investigation. That is the whole point. The presumption against prosecution does not stop the investigation; the investigation happens. The 80-year-old who is alleged to have done whatever he has done would still get the knock on the door. He would still be investigated. Once there was sufficient evidence against him, it goes to the prosecutor. If there is not sufficient evidence, the investigation stops. If there is sufficient evidence, it goes to the prosecutor, who then has the five-year presumption against prosecution. The 80-year-old is still going through all the trauma, and it may be that the police say, “This is such a serious case that it is exceptional, and therefore we should waive the presumption against prosecution.” This Bill will not address that question. That is the whole point.
No, because that was very much an investigation function. It has changed a bit because of what I have done with the system, but at that time I was effectively waiting for the investigation to happen and the prosecution to come to us. The judge becomes involved when the case first steps into the courtroom. That may take another two years, even after it has stepped into the courtroom, because of whatever has to happen. I was not consulted, no, and nor should I have been at that stage.
I was reassured that the investigations were taking time, more evidence was needed, some cases were coming, and I needed to keep out of it so that when the cases came I could deal with them.
There was one other point that I wanted to make, which is about complementarity—not with the ICC. I would pose some questions, particularly to the Minister. You will remember that six Royal Military Police were killed at Majar al-Kabir in 2003. If those responsible were identified today, would we accept that there would be a presumption against their prosecution? Would we expect the factors in clause 3(2)(a) to be taken into account? Would we be content that a member of the Iraqi Government’s consent would be needed to prosecute? Would we accept a decision by that person not to prosecute? In my view, there would be outrage in this country if that occurred. In all areas of law, you have to be even-handed. If, in that same battle, it turned out that one of our soldiers killed one of the Iraqis unlawfully and we said, “Well, he should be protected, because it was a long time ago, but we not protecting these Iraqis,” that is just not right. I fundamentally think the Bill is wrong, and I really believe it needs to be revised before it passes into law.
Thank you, Judge. That neatly turned around the normal procedure—instead of the Committee asking you questions, you are asking the Committee questions. The Committee has come to the end of its questions. May I thank you on behalf of the Committee for the very interesting and valuable evidence that you have given to us? That brings us to the complete end of our oral evidence sessions with different witnesses. We will meet again on Wednesday next week to commence line-by-line consideration of the Bill. We will be meeting at 9.25 am in Committee Room 10.