Human Rights Stories No. 4: DEEPCUT. How the families used the Human Rights Act to get access to the State’s evidence and exposed abuse & ill treatment of vulnerable young trainees in the Army

27th Oct 2021
Pte Cheryl James and Pte Sean Benton died at Deepcut barracks. Here, Cheryl’s father and Sean’s sister explain how they used the Human Rights Act to get answers.
‘Be in no doubt. Any proposals to limit the power of the Human Rights Act are not made in the interests of service personnel or their families. They are made in the interests of the Ministry of Defence.’

We lost our loved ones at Deepcut Army barracks in 1995. Sean Benton was 21 years old when he died, a young vulnerable lad. Cheryl James had just turned 18 and was living away from home for the first time. When they joined up they were so positive and excited about their future and we were so proud of them.

Both Cheryl and Sean died suddenly of gunshot wounds while on guard duty within a few months of each other. They were both still in training.

In both cases, a short, cursory inquest was held shortly after the death that revealed very little. To the extent that there was any police investigation at all, it was the military police that handled it. The local civilian police force completely and unforgivably failed us. The investigations were quickly shut down and we were expected to quietly go away and get on with our lives.

A few years after we lost Cheryl and Sean, two more families lost their children, when James Collinson and Geoff Gray, both just aged 17, also died suddenly from gunshot wounds at the camp.

For years the families campaigned on behalf of our loved ones. We hit brick wall after brick wall. Promises of political or legal help never seemed to materialise.

In 2012, we used the Human Rights Act to compel the authorities to release the evidence that they held about our loved ones to us.  We relied on Article 2, the right to an independent investigation into a death where there has been state involvement, as well as Article 6, the right to a fair trial. We argued that without disclosure we could not meaningfully exercise our legal right to apply to the High Court for a fresh inquest.  Our arguments worked and in due course, tens of thousands of pages of new evidence were disclosed to us – this was 17 years after the deaths. This then enabled us to show that there had been no meaningful investigation in all that time in which the families had been able to take part, and to make the case that there needed to be fresh inquests. We persuaded the High Court to quash the original inquests and order fresh ones.

Those new inquests then took place in 2016 and 2018. They were so-called ‘Article 2’ inquests which means that the wider circumstances of the deaths were investigated.

The inquests revealed publicly and for the first time and – crucially – with the families present, legally represented and able to cross examine witnesses, just what an abusive, out-of-control and unsafe place Deepcut camp had been for our young people.

Cheryl’s inquest revealed a horribly toxic, unsafe, predatory and abusive environment for young women.  A tiny number of poorly trained instructors was in charge of hundreds of young trainees, many of them vulnerable and living away from home for the first time with no meaningful supervision, welfare support, care or meaningful system for reporting bullying, harassment or criminal or sexual assaults.

Sean’s case revealed multiple cases of physical assaults and mistreatment by named individuals within the chain of command or unit against trainees, some of which are now the subject of an independent police investigation.  As with Cheryl’s case, it was shown that there was nowhere for young people to go if they were being bullied, ostracised and being worn down by this dreadful place.

Sean’s case also revealed that even in 2018, the Army was still not ensuring that trainees and recruits were aware that they could go to the civilian police if they wanted to report a crime.  As a result, the Army promised the Coroner that it would from now on ensure that all training establishments would make clear to new recruits and trainees that, if they suffered criminal physical or sexual assaults, they could go to the civilian police for help.

A ‘Prevention of Future Deaths’ report was also issued by the Coroner at the inquest into the death of Pte Geoff Gray, in view of his observations about the assumptions of suicide that had been made by the police at an early stage in all of the Deepcut cases.  The Coroner recommended that there should be a forensic or enhanced post-mortem examination in all future deaths by firearms, even in cases where the death appeared to be self-inflicted, to address the risk of relevant information being otherwise lost and potential homicides going undetected.

These were important outcomes and showed the contemporary benefit Article 2 inquests can have even years after a death.

The Deepcut inquests were only able to investigate the wider circumstances of the deaths, the allegations of mistreatment and produce these improvements because of the Human Rights Act.

The Government now wants to chip away at it. To the extent that we were able to achieve anything after so long, it was the Human Rights Act that enabled us to do it.  The Human Rights Act is there so that victims of serious state failure like our families can hold the state to account.  Of course that process makes the State – in this case, the Ministry of Defence  – uncomfortable because it forces it to confront difficult questions.  That discomfort is exactly what we are seeing from the Government at the moment.  It is completely unacceptable that the Government seems to be suggesting that it is somehow in the interests of the Armed Forces for the Human Rights Act to be restricted.  It was the only thing we had.

Be in no doubt. Any proposals to limit the power of the Human Rights Act are not made in the interests of service personnel or their families. They are made in the interests of the Ministry of Defence.

Des James is the father of Pte Cheryl James who died at Deepcut on 27 November 1995.  In 2019 he founded the Centre for Military Justice.

Tracy Lewis is the sister of Pte Sean Benton who died on 9 June 1995 at Deepcut.


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