Alicia – one of 3 women that brought a legal challenge to the Ministry of Defence’s approach to the handling of military rape last year – explains why last week’s developments in Parliament are so important.
Parliament finally listened to us last week.
On 23 November, the House of Lords passed an amendment to the Armed Forces Bill. The amendment is incredibly important. It will mean that military rape and serious sexual assaults, as well as murder, manslaughter, domestic and child abuse cases, where alleged to have happened in the UK, are referred to the civilian police, not the military police. If prosecuted, they will be handled by the Crown Prosecution Service and heard in the Crown Court before a civilian jury of all walks of life, not a Court Martial before a military board drawn from a small pool of uniformed senior officers.
As someone that saw extremely serious failings in the handling of my own sexual assault case at Court Martial, which meant the case collapsed, the value of this amendment cannot be overstated. You can read more about my case here. My military prosecutor made a series of serious mistakes in the prosecution which included not informing me that I could give my evidence via video link, a delay in submitting crucial documents until the day of the trial, and providing incorrect legal advice. I also had serious concerns about the quality of the military policing in my case, the quality of victim care (or lack of it) and the reaction of the Navy when I tried to raise my concerns.
When I settled the case out of court with the Ministry of Defence, I asked for a review of all the military prosecutor’s sexual assault files – not least because we knew he had made serious mistakes in at least one other rape case which had led the Service Prosecuting Authority to have to apologise to that woman’s family – but notwithstanding the apparent catalogue of errors, the MoD refused to do that. I remain hugely concerned at the other women and men that may have also been failed.
With two other women, in 2020 I brought a judicial review of the MoD’s refusal to accept the recommendation of the independent judge-led review into the military justice system (the Lyons review) that had, after almost 3 years of painstaking work and evidence-gathering, recommended that these types of cases should be handled in the civil system. Our claim settled on the basis that the MoD promised to remind all service personnel of their right to report rapes to civilian police if they wanted to, to review its sexual assault policies, and to place the matter before Parliament – which is what has now enabled the Lords to scrutinise the legislation and come to the decision it has.
Now that the Lords has stood with us and accepted our arguments, I call on the Commons, when it looks again at the Armed Forces Bill in the days to come, to accept the amendment.
Why is it important that cases like mine should be heard in the civilian justice system?
Because it has nothing to do with the military. Because it is independent. Because it will encourage more service personnel to come forward and report. Because it will afford us some protection from the appalling consequences we suffer inside our units after we report rape. Because there is now huge attention being paid to the need to improve the system of civil justice for survivors of rape, with government, experts, NGOs, retired judges and activists doing all they can to improve investigations and prosecutions – there is so much work to do but service men and women must be permitted to be part of and benefit from that work, not be kept separate and apart from it. While the civil system has its own very serious problems, the military’s are far worse.
Because we, service personnel, as Judge Lyons said, are citizens of this country. We have not given up our rights by joining the Armed Forces. Where the civil courts are available to us, we must be allowed have our cases heard in them.
Footnote: The amendment that passed in the Lords (210-190) reads: ‘Guidance under subsection (3)(a) must provide that where offences of murder, manslaughter, domestic violence, child abuse, rape or sexual assault with penetration are alleged to have been committed in the United Kingdom, any charges brought against a person subject to service law shall normally be tried in a civilian court unless, by reason of specific naval or military complexity involving the service, the Attorney General consents to trial by court martial.’
Names have been changed.