Latest sexual offences statistics from the Ministry of Defence – what do they tell us?

31st Mar 2023

The MoD has just published its latest annual statistics on sexual offending in the armed forces.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s really important to dive into the underlying data tables, than rely upon the MoD’s own presentation of its statistics.

It’s also critical to start by reminding ourselves of some recent important research into outcomes at civil jury trials in the Crown Court.

Prof Cheryl Thomas at University College London last month published research that shows that – notwithstanding the terrible problems faced by women in the civilian system in getting their rape cases investigated and charged – if their cases do get to trial and are heard before a civil jury in the Crown Court, a civil jury is far more likely to convict than acquit. In the last year she examined, 2021, her research indicates that the civil jury conviction rate for all rape charges is as high as 75%.

For the equivalent year in the military justice system, the published data shows that of the 25 rape charges that were completed at Court Martial, just 5 resulted in a conviction. That is a conviction rate of just 20% at Court Martial.

For this year, of 14 rape charges completed at Court Martial, 5 were convicted. That is a conviction rate of 35%.  So the good news is that the rate has improved – but it is still much, much lower than the conviction rate before a civil jury.

Court martials do not have juries. They have military boards comprising between three and six commissioned officers, Warrant Officers and Chief Petty Officer/Staff Sergeant/Flight Sergeant, depending on the seriousness of the case. Having listened to a Judge Advocate’s directions, they are responsible for finding defendants guilty or not guilty. They are also involved in sentencing the convicted, a marked contrast to the civil system where the jury has no role in sentencing. There is a strong perception amongst the women we support that military boards of uniformed officers are less likely to convict an alleged rapist in uniform. These figures seem to support that contention.

In fairness to the MoD, the relatively small number of cases (as compared to the civil system) show that the smallest variation can result in a significant change in the conviction rate. So the MoD always cries that it is unfair to compare the two systems. The MoD will also point to the higher rate of charging in the military system as compared to the civil system.

But the problem for the MoD is that they have now been publishing data on completed Court Martials since 2015 and the conviction rate for rape cases has varied between 4% and 35%, varying very significantly year on year (but never getting above 35%), and giving an average of just 17.75% of completed rape cases at Court Martial resulting in a guilty verdict over that period.

The difference is very hard to explain and the MoD is unable to explain it.

The data suggests that urgent research needs to be conducted into outcomes for rape at Court Martial and particular consideration given to whether military boards are actually capable of delivering justice for victims of rape except in the occasional, strongest cases.

Other points to note:

  1. The vast majority of all reported sexual offences were alleged to have taken place in the UK. This means they could have been dealt with by the civilian police or the military police. Yet the military police have dealt with a much higher number of sexual assault cases in 2022 than ever before and the figures seem to be going up and up. They have jumped from 161 in 2020, to 239 in 2021, to 342 in 2022. That may demonstrate increased confidence in the system. Certainly it is likely to reflect  increased confidence on the part of the service police in persuading victims to allow them to retain control of their sexual assault cases, particularly in light of the fact that the MoD so firmly resisted calls from the Defence Committee and from so many voices in Parliament in 2021, for such cases to be sent to the civilian justice system. Having quietly conducted these kinds of investigations for years, contrary to what had been the original intention of Parliament, the service police may now feel they have carte blanche to crack on confidently with these kinds of cases. It is notable that just 16 cases seem to have been referred to the civilian police all year.
  2. The MoD is publishing data about domestic abuse cases for the first time. That is important and welcome. During the passage of the Armed Forces Bill in 2021, it was a constant refrain from the MoD that in almost all cases, domestic abuse allegations would be referred to the civil police as standard process. However 37 cases seem to have been handled by the service police in 2022. It may be that these occurred overseas which would explain, but it would be helpful to clarify that. And the outcomes of those domestic abuse cases at Court Martial are not recorded. It may be that they have not been heard yet but it will be important to publish these outcomes when they are.
  3. The MoD is publishing information about indecent images of children for the first time after years of lobbying from campaigners. That is also important and welcome. We will continue to press for the following to be published too: s63 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 (possession of an extreme pornographic image); s33 Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 (disclosing private photographs and films); s67 Serious Crime Act 2015 (sexual communications with a child); and ss1, 2A, 4, 4A Protection from Harassment Act 1997 (harassment and stalking offences). It would be helpful if the MoD could explain why these offences cannot be published. The MoD might wish to take advice on what other sexual offences might be collated and published too.
  4. There remain concerns about the quality of this data and its recording. In an HMIC report from just 2022, the inspectors warned of the discrepancies between sexual and domestic abuse cases recorded on service police systems and the published MoD figures. The figures were different. This seems to echo the discrepancies observed in the Lyons Review of 2020 where, for example, for the time period 1 January 2015 to 1 January 2018, the service police database system (‘COPPERS’) recorded 1287 reports of sexual offences – but for that same period just 342 sexual offences were recorded as having been actually investigated by the service police. What happened to the remaining 945?
  5. Last year’s Army Sexual Harassment Survey showed a massive increase in the number of people reporting ‘particularly upsetting behaviours’ in just the preceding 12 months. The figure had risen from 15% of service women in 2018, to 35% of servicewomen reporting a particularly upsetting experience in 2022.  The figure for men was up too, to 13% (from 2% from the last survey). Lots of those described experiences would amount to a sexual offence and it is quite clear that there remains massive under-reporting generally. The vast majority of those that disclosed a ‘particularly upsetting behaviour’ stated that they did not go on to formally report it.
  6. There is a new Defence Serious Crime Unit (DSCU) that will lead on the most serious cases and replace the single services’ Serious Investigations Branches that were so heavily criticised by the Lyons Review of 2020. It has only been set up recently and it will be interesting to see if they are able to improve outcomes for rape which CMJ sincerely hopes they can. The independent judge that recommended the setting up of the DSCU said that it must contain significant civilian input and oversight – it is not clear that that has happened. There is to be a Service Police Complaints Commissioner too, to handle complaints into poor conduct by the military police – staggeringly, such a body has never existed for service personnel, unlike their civilian counterparts, and is still not in place despite being recommended by Lyons more than three years ago.
  7. Are Courts Martials getting sentences for serious sexual assaults right? Some recent reported cases give cause for concern. Earlier this month following a conviction at Court Martial for an offence of sexual assault by penetration, an RAF Sqn Ldr who assaulted a female officer, who had reportedly shown no remorse, was considered to pose a risk of harm to females, and whose offence had caused the victim to attempt suicide, was sentenced to just 18 months (to serve 9) in prison. This seems very low. An equivalent case in the civilian system, according to the Sentencing Guidelines, in a case where an offence of this type caused severe psychological harm, would expect to produce a sentence of between 4 and 9 years. Another case here, resulted in just 20 months (to serve 10) for an instructor found guilty of sexual assault and conduct of a disgraceful kind directed towards female children at AFC (Harrogate). It would be helpful if some dedicated research could be done to compare sentencing for sexual offences at Court Martial and Crown Court.

And of course the following also remains true and of concern to the many women and men we support:

  • The Defence Committee recommended that rape and serious sexual assaults should be sent to the civil system in 2021. This followed on from the Lyons Review that first made this recommendation in 2018. That recommendation continues to be rejected by the MoD.
  • The MoD refuses to allow even quasi-independent handling of serious complaints of sexual harassment, again resisting the recommendations of both the Defence Committee and the Wigston Review. It refuses to allow the independent Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces to investigate them either – except at the end of a long internal investigation and internal appeals process.
  • The Defence so-called Rape Strategy (‘Tackling Offending in Defence’) published last year was pretty poor, cobbled together, and was nothing like the comprehensive End to End Rape Review that is informing important reforms in the civilian system. Service personnel are missing out.
  • Commanding Officers of suspects still retain responsibility for ensuring victims have appropriate support – an obvious and appalling conflict of interest that may partly explain why, in every sexual assault case on which CMJ is advising, the relevant policies on support to those that report sexual assaults are routinely and systematically ignored. This has devastating consequences for victims of sexual assault.


How can you help?

The Centre for Military Justice is a small but growing charity and we rely on generous donations to carry out our vital work. We know that not everyone has the means to help us financially, but for those that do, we can say that every single penny counts.

You can also help us by joining our mailing list, so that we can keep you updated about our work and so that when we have specific asks, like sharing a social media post, we can get in touch.

Donate as much or as little as you can to help

Support Us

Join our mailing list

Join the mailing list