Female Royal Navy staff back calls for rape cases to be tried in civilian courts

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA</span>
Photograph: Tim Ireland/PA

An amendment to the Armed Forces Bill recommends rapes cases should not be heard under courts martial

A serving member of the Royal Navy, who took legal action against the Ministry of Defence after her rape case collapsed, has backed calls for serious offences to be investigated and tried through the civilian courts rather than the military system.

The woman, known as Servicewoman A, has called on the government to accept an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill, which she says will “encourage more women to come forward” and protect them from the “appalling consequences” of reporting rape within their unit.

The House of Lords amended the Armed Forces Bill to ensure that the most serious crimes – murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse and rape – are tried in the civilian courts when committed in the UK unless the attorney general has specifically consented for such crimes to be tried under courts martial.

The government is expected to reject these proposals.

Servicewoman A said a military prosecutor committed a series of failings during her rape case, including failing to inform her she could give evidence via video link, delaying the submission of crucial documents until the day of the trial, and providing incorrect legal advice.

She has raised concerns about the quality of military policing in the case, an absence of survivor care, and the response from the navy when she raised complaints.

She said: “The value of this amendment for women like me cannot be overstated. There were extremely serious failings in the handling of my case at court martial which ultimately meant it collapsed.

“This amendment will make the process independent. It will encourage more service personnel to report crimes. It will mean we have some protection from the appalling consequences we suffer when we report rape within our units.

“I am urging the government to accept this amendment. As service personnel we are citizens of this country and we deserve justice just like everyone else.”

A critical review of the service justice system was published in 2020 by retired senior crown court judge Shaun Lyons with the help of Sir Jon Murphy, the former chief constable of Merseyside.

Its first recommendation was that “the court martial jurisdiction should no longer include murder, manslaughter and rape when these offences are committed in the UK, except when the consent of the attorney general is given”.

Last year, Servicewoman A was one of three women who sought a judicial review of the defence secretary’s decision to ignore the key recommendation of the Lyons review. The case was settled out of court.

The latest Ministry of Defence figures show that between 2015 and 2020, the conviction rate for rape cases tried under courts martial was just 9%. The latest data available suggests the conviction rate was 59% for cases that reached civilian courts, with considerably more cases being tried each year.

Almost three-quarters (74%) of sexual offences in the armed forces in 2020 took place in the UK, and more than three-quarters (76%) of the victims were women.

Labour tabled a similar amendment to the Armed Forces Bill at report stage in July, which the government, including the Conservative defence select committee chair, Tobias Ellwood, and fellow committee member Sarah Atherton, did not support.

The shadow armed forces minister, Stephen Morgan, said: “Trying the most serious offences in civilian courts would help improve investigations and conviction rates, but ministers seem content with a fudge that will leave personnel vulnerable.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “The government will not be supporting amendments to the Armed Forces Bill.”

The spokesperson added: “We are strengthening the prosecutor protocols to provide some much-needed clarity and transparency on how decisions on jurisdiction are made.”

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