Calls For Civilian Courts To Deal With Sexual Assault and Abuse Cases Involving The Military, After Damning Evidence
Legal experts have made fresh calls for the armed forces to send rape and sexual assault cases to civilian courts rather than military police and courts, after a litany of long delays, inexperienced staff and a wider culture of hostility towards victims were revealed.
The damning catalogue of accusations aimed at the military complaints and justice system came in the latest round of evidence given to the defence select sub-committee’s investigation into women in the armed forces.
Emma Norton, director and solicitor for the Centre for Military Justice, said the Armed Forces Bill should be amended so that in cases of rape and sexual assault specifically, civilian courts take over from military processes.
She said: “There are a lot of people there who are working really hard and trying to do a really good job, but they just don't have enough experience, and they just don't have the same volume of experience, as the civilian police do. That’s why it would be safer to put those most serious cases into the civilian justice system.”
Currently women can chose which court process to go through but she said most are not aware they can take the civilian route.
Norton said problems with the current system involve the fact that commanding officers can get access to service police statements, even in rape cases.
And outlining the scale of delays to investigations into sexual assault, she said investigators have taken up to a year and two months to decide on the admissibility of evidence relating to a woman who reported being a victim of serious assault and was then failed by her unit. The decision is supposed to be taken within two weeks.
Requests from women to ask to be moved closer to family or have compassionate leave are also being ignored, Norton claimed.
The defence select sub-committee's survey into serving women and veterans received more than 4,100 responses, and 62 percent claimed they had experienced harassment, bullying and discrimination and six out of 10 felt that they could not complain.
In bullying and harassment cases, which usually have the involvement of a commanding officer in the investigation, Norton described incidents of racism and sexism.
“I've seen blatantly discriminatory things, blatantly racist things and sexist things said by witnesses and respondents in responses to service complaints in their statements and in their interviews, which are clearly not being picked up by commanding officers. That's very concerning,” she said.
Overall, she said the quality of the complaints procedure is “pretty resoundingly awful” and include a lack of sympathy of someone claiming to have suffered from discrimination.
“There's also quite active hostility when it's known that that person has got a solicitor,” she said.
A central defence authority to investigate bullying and discrimination should be set up, she said, as recommended by Air Chief Marshal Wigston in his 2019 investigation into inappropriate behaviour.
Chair of the defence sub-committee, Conservative MP Sarah Atherton, who served in the forces when she left school, asked if cases are left for so long that the alleged victim is posted to another location or leaves the armed forces under duress.
“Delay is rife in every single case,” Norton replied.
Nicola Williams, former Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces, was asked why people feel reluctant to complain, and said the perception that cases take years can put people off pursuing them.
She said: “When you add in delay, a fear of victimisation…a lack of confidentiality and also with the proposed changes of the Armed Forces bill which would squeeze the time limits for making the appeals…you can see why people, not only will not come forward but will repeatedly not come forward unless some very fundamental changes are made.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “We are grateful to current and former servicewomen and those who have offered evidence to the inquiry. Their testimony makes clear that on too many occasions Defence failed to provide adequate support.
“We support this inquiry’s important work and will carefully consider its findings.
“Great strides have been made in this area; the majority of women have long and fulfilling careers in the military, but much more needs to be done. We are committed to improving the experience for women in the Armed Forces in every area of their lives.
“Anyone who falls short of our high standards of behaviour will be dealt with robustly, including dismissal and possible police investigation. There is no room for any form of discrimination in the military.”
The MoD recently launched a new 24/7 helpline for personnel to report and seek advice on bullying, harassment and discrimination.
They say they are implementing the Wigston Report’s recommendations.