Soldiers' rights

Liberty launches Helpline for troops as new report highlights failings in military criminal justice and complaints systems

Posted on 01 Feb 2019

UK service men and women continue to be badly failed by the Armed Forces’ in-house policing and legal systems, especially where rape and other serious offences are concerned.

Liberty has today published a comprehensive report on the military justice system, revealing that UK service men and women continue to be badly failed by the Armed Forces’ in-house policing and legal systems, especially where rape and other serious offences are concerned.

The new report has led Liberty to today launch the first-ever Armed Forces Human Rights Helpline, designed to offer free, independent legal advice to all current and former serving men and women and their families.

Criminal Justice

The report, “Second-Rate Justice”, details significant flaws in the way the Armed Forces deal with some of the most sensitive and serious criminal cases involving service personnel.

It damningly highlights the military’s deep-rooted preference for its own internal and inadequate Service Justice System (SJS) – which includes the Service Police, the military’s own police forces consisting of the Royal Military Police, Royal Naval Police and the RAF Police – and its hostility to outside scrutiny from more experienced civilian police and prosecutors.

Despite the fact that the civilian justice system should take priority over the military system, the report demonstrates that this is not happening and paints a picture of a ‘boys’ club’ approach to justice in the Armed Forces that prevents the impartial and effective investigation of some of the most serious cases.

It details how:

  • The Service Police are taking charge of investigations into alleged sexual offences including rapes, even though the legal presumption is that these should be dealt with by civilian police. In 2017 alone, 123 investigations were carried out by the Royal Military Police. Liberty believes that the majority of these should have been dealt with by the civilian police because they happened in the UK. Shockingly, a previous recommendation from Liberty that allegations of rape should always be investigated by civilian police has still not been acted upon.
  • Some offences appear to be being downgraded to less serious offences, so that they can be dealt with internally and not go to court at all. For example, an allegation of sexual assault – which must be referred to the Service Police – may be reduced to battery which a Commanding Officer can deal with him/herself without referring it to the police at all. This practice must stop.
  • The Ministry of Defence’s inadequate methods of recording sexual crimes, and the downgrading of serious crimes to lesser offences, mean that the real scale of sexual offending in the Armed Forces is likely to be significantly higher than MoD statistics indicate. For example, the government department continues to refuse to record or publish any data at all about such serious sexual offences as creating or possessing indecent images of children, possession of extreme pornographic images, revenge porn offences, sexual communications with a child or criminal harassment offences. For the sake of accuracy, transparency and public confidence, data on the prevalence of these offences ought to be recorded and published.
  • Conviction rates for rape in the military are even lower than civilian rates – which are already far too low. In 2017, just two of the 48 rape cases that made it to Court Martial resulted in a conviction.

The new report makes 21 important recommendations which would ensure service personnel enjoy the same rights and protections as civilians. They include:

  • Ensuring all serious criminal offences in the UK are investigated by civilian, not Service Police.
  • Combining the three branches of the Service Police into a single force and embed them in civilian forces so that, when they must deploy abroad, they are sufficiently experienced, trained and supervised.
  • Bringing the Service Police under the oversight of an independent expert supervisory body.
  • Ensuring the independent Service Complaints Ombudsman is involved in serious cases of bullying, sexual harassment or racial or other discrimination at an early stage with her own fully-funded independent powers of investigation.

Emma Norton, Liberty’s Head of Legal Casework and solicitor for a number of service people or their bereaved families, said: “The serving men and women that contact Liberty have all been on the sharp end of the Service Justice System. They may have been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, beaten or abused – or they may have tried to raise a complaint but found that it has had a detrimental impact on them or their career.

“There are a number of serious and fundamental problems with the way in which the Service Justice System functions which mean service men and women are getting second-rate justice. Rather than peddling myths about the Human Rights Act, politicians would do better to roll up their sleeves and work out what meaningful changes are needed that could improve the lives and experiences of service people once and for all.

“It ought to be beyond discussion that the investigation of serious criminal offences such as rape or other serious assaults should be handled by the civilian police, not the Service Police who lack the resources, experience and expertise. If the MoD is serious about tackling unhealthy attitudes or patterns of behaviour in the forces, what better way to demonstrate that than by ensuring independent police always investigate and have oversight of those difficult cases?”

Armed Forces complaints

The report also details the inadequacy of the service complaints system – the process by which serving and former members of the armed forces can make a formal a complaint about their treatment in the Armed Forces. It finds the complaints system is complex, lengthy, traumatising and does not work in the interests of service personnel.

The system for dealing with the Service Police is particularly poor. There is no meaningful independent oversight of the Service Police at all. The Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) – an independent body which regulates the conduct of police officers and handles complaints – has no jurisdiction whatsoever over the Service Police.

Armed Forces Human Rights Helpline

For many years Liberty has represented soldiers and their families who have suffered a second-rate justice system and a tortuous complaints process.

We have witnessed first-hand deeply unsatisfactory treatment of both victims and accused across a range of cases and alleged offences. There are few places for service personnel to turn when cases are botched.

For that reason – and with the support of the players of People’s Postcode Lottery – Liberty has today launched a dedicated legal advice phone line for serving and former members of the UK Armed Forces.

The Helpline is designed to provide some initial advice or sign-posting for those who need it. It aims to alleviate some of the complexity of the military legal system and provide free legal advice.

Available to current and former service personnel and their families ONLY, the line will be open from 10am-4pm Monday to Friday on 020 3102 9313.

Contact the Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656 / 07973 831 128 or

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