If you are in the armed forces, criminal and disciplinary proceedings can be very confusing. An easy comparison can be made between cases dealt with in the civil criminal courts and how they are dealt with in the armed forces.
If you are accused of a criminal offence or a disciplinary breach while in the armed forces, you are likely to be interviewed by the Service Police. This would be very similar to an interview under caution at a police station and you are entitled to free and independent legal advice.
If the Service Police feel there is sufficient evidence to charge you, you will be referred to the Service Prosecuting Authority for a decision on whether to actually bring a case against you.
Most minor disciplinary and criminal matters would be dealt with summarily by your Commanding Officer. Being dealt with summarily is a little like having your case dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court. If the case is proven against you, your Commanding Officer has a range of sentencing disposals up to 28 days detention which can be extended, with the approval of the Higher Authority to up to 90 days.
You will have the right to elect trial in the Court Martiall, or you may appeal after conviction to the Summary Appeal Court where your case will be heard by a Judge Advocate and two officers. Again, this is similar to appealing a Magistrates’ Court decision to the Crown Court.
Serious cases will be tried by a Court Martial. Your case would be tried by a Judge Advocate and a Jury made up of between 3 and 7 commissioned or Warrant Officers. The Jury in a Court Martial is known as a panel. It is the Judge Advocate’s job to direct the panel on the law. The panel, having heard the evidence and the Judge Advocate’s directions, will decide whether or not you are guilty.
However, unlike in the Crown Court if you are found guilty or plead guilty, the panel will decide with the Judge Advocate what sentence you will receive. In the Crown Court, it is the Judge alone who decides on sentencing.
A Court Marshall has the full range of sentencing powers open to the Crown Court for custodial or non-custodial sentences. However, there are some additional powers open to a Court Marshall to reflect the special status of service personnel. These can include dismissal from service; reduction in ranks and up to two years in military detention in Colchester either with or without dismissal.
Unfortunately, the Court Marshall at HMRMB Portsmouth closed down in the last few years so most cases would either be heard in Bulford or Catterick. Legal Aid covers interviews with the Service Police and Court Martial.
A charge and conviction can have a real impact on your career with convictions for serious offences leading to custody and dismissal from the armed forces.
It is important to remember a Court Martial has jurisdiction over all service personnel and civilian personnel subject to service discipline and that can include family members and civilian contractors.
It is paramount that you get independent legal advice. Churchers is a local firm with a long history of representing service personnel and their families both at police interviews and at Court Martial.
The criminal justice system can be frightening if you have no experience of it, so make sure you are represented and get all the help and support that you are entitled to.
For further advice and support, please contact either Jason Halsey or Alex Moore at our Portsmouth Office on 02392 820 747.