Survivors of sexual violence in the Armed Forces deserve a decent shot at justice

01st Apr 2020

This week the Ministry of Defence published the latest statistics on sexual offending in the Armed Forces.

Before we dive into the statistics, a couple of important notes of caution.

First of all, these statistics do not include any sexual offences that are dealt with in the civilian justice system. We know, for example, that in 2017, as many as 869 service personnel were sentenced in the civilian courts (that is, at the Magistrates or Crown Court) for some form of criminal offence, although we do not know how many of those were for sexual offences. Any sexual offences involving service personnel dealt with at Crown Court are excluded from these figures.

Secondly, these statistics exclude a whole range of offences which, on any sensible view, constitute sexual offences. There has never been an explanation, let alone a convincing one, for their exclusion. Possessing or creating an indecent image of a child, possessing extreme pornographic images, ‘revenge porn’ offences, engaging in sexual communications with a child, criminal harassment offences – none of these are included in the MoD’s sexual offences bulletin. The bulletin is limited only to offences contained in the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

What this means is that the information published by the MoD is, at best, very patchy.

Notwithstanding that, the statistics published this week do provide an insight into the issue of military sexual offending. They also give rise to serious cause for concern.

The numbers are going up

The number of sexual offences that are being dealt with exclusively by the Service Police (that is, the Royal Naval Police, the Royal Military Police and the RAF Police combined) continues to rise steadily, year on year: from 123 in 2017, to 153 in 2018 and now to 178 for the year 2019.

The incidents they are investigating are happening here in the UK

The vast majority of these cases concern incidents that took place inside the UK.  This is really important.

The whole point of having a separate ‘Service Justice System’ (comprising the Service Police, the Service Prosecution Authority and the Court Martial) is so that it can move around the world with the Armed Forces and provide a system of justice to them wherever they are. But these statistics show that this is not what is happening. Service Police are increasingly and with no justification, dealing with cases inside the UK – cases of rape and sexual assault that are happening in Catterick, Bulford or Yeovilton. These are cases that ought to be dealt with by the civilian police, handled by lawyers from the Crown Prosecution Service and taken to Crown Court. That was always the intention of Parliament. But the MoD has taken it upon itself to say that where both accused and victim are serving, the presumption should be that the Service Justice System should hang on to them. That is not a position that has ever been sanctioned by Parliament and amounts to appalling mission creep.

It is women that are suffering

All the suspects were male. The overwhelming majority of the victims were female.

Outcomes for victims of sexual crime are poor

Out of 157 cases referred by the Service Police to the Service Prosecution Authority (the SPA, the Armed Forces prosecuting arm), the SPA charged in just 48 cases.

Out of 30 rape cases referred to the SPA by the Service Police, the SPA charged in just 6 cases.

And what happened to those cases that were fortunate enough to make it through the door of the Court Martial?

The Court Martial dealt with 98 of these cases in 2019, resulting in just 17 personnel being convicted (of 31 charges).

Just 15 rape cases got to Court Martial – and only 3 of those resulted in a conviction.

40 out of 57 sexual assault cases resulted in an acquittal.

All defendants accused of voyeurism were acquitted.

These outcomes do not suggest that all those victims were lying. They suggest that there is something seriously wrong with the way the Service Justice System deals with sexual crime.

What is the answer?

Send these cases to the civilian justice system. Let civilian police officers and CPS lawyers deal with them at Crown Court.

The Service Justice Review that the MoD commissioned over the last 2 years reported last month and offered some very strong criticisms of the Service Police and the SPA. It exposed the disproportionate levels of rape offences charged in the service for the size of the population; expressed concern at the ‘astonishingly low’ conversion rate of rape reports to conviction; called out the prevalent Service Police view that they are ‘soldiers first’ and view their policing responsibilities as secondary; revealed that Service Police workloads were a fraction of a civilian police force and that they therefore lacked the experience of operating within the perpetual ‘daily grind’ of a local CID office, resulting in poorer outcomes when serious cases came across their desks. Similar observations were made of lawyers working for the SPA, with serious concerns raised about their levels of experience when compared to CPS prosecutors.

Our clients have direct experience of these shortcomings and their lives have been changed forever because of them. When they have tried to raise their concerns they are, at best, given the brush off by a defensive system and at worst, are completely re-traumatised by the experience.

The Service Justice Review recommended that all cases of rape, sexual assault with penetration (and child abuse and domestic violence) be dealt with by the civilian justice system. After all that work, it was rejected out of hand by the MoD.  No reasons were given.

There is little to no meaningful engagement on this issue inside the MoD. While they have announced some reforms, they are still getting the fundamentals badly wrong. And if these statistics are anything to go by, things are getting worse.

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