When it comes to dealing with rape and sexual assault in the military, the safeguards and justice system meant to protect survivors, in fact exposes them to further harm and often obstructs justice.
The Ministry of Defence says that the UK’s military courts “closely mirror the system for civilians”. However, many survivors and human rights groups have not found this to be the case. With a shockingly low rape conviction rate in comparison to civilian courts, and lack of support for survivors, there are serious cracks within the system.
As a result, three Servicewomen who suffered “appalling treatment” when reporting rape and sexual assault are launching legal action against the Service Justice System. Through seeking a judicial review, they hope to prevent military courts from trying rape cases in the future.
The Service Justice System has had the authority to preside over rape cases and other serious offences since 2009. This system comprises the service police, service prosecutors and courts martial. Meanwhile the service police is made up from Royal Military Police, Royal Navy Police and Royal Air Force Police.
Official regulation outlines that civilian police will often retain jurisdiction in serious cases involving two military personnel. However, the majority of the time, this is not the case. Human rights group Liberty in its “Second-Rate Justice” report found that in 2017 alone, a startling 123 investigations were conducted by the Royal Military Police. This is despite the fact that they are reportedly lacking in the ‘very particular skill and expertise’ needed to effectively carry out such investigations. They are after all, as ForcesWatch outlines, first and foremost soldiers before police officers. As such, it has been highlighted that service police are exposed to a conflict of interest, whereby they are “inclined to protect what they see as the interests of the armed forces”.
On top of this, it has been found that some sexual offences have even been downgraded to non-sexual offences. This is in order for them to be dealt with by a Commanding Officer, rather than proceeding to court. Unsurprisingly, the complaints system within this internal structure has also been found to be deeply inefficient. With the Service Complaints Ombudsman taking the place of an Independent Office of Police Conduct, complainants are severely limited in their ability to ensure that service police are held accountable for their actions. According to Liberty’s report, there has not been a single military police complaint made to the Ombudsman since her office was created in 2016. In its report, it says that this indicates “there is no accessible, effective or meaningful complaints system for service personnel wishing to complain about the Service Police”.
Since the military were given the power to oversee rape cases, there have been serious concerns relating to their ability to effectively process cases. In 2019, speaking to the BBC, a former service police officer said that the internal justice system within the MoD, fundamentally lacks experience dealing with cases. This was blatantly shown in an article written by The Times, whereby an Army corporal discussed reporting an alleged sexual assault by a fellow soldier. She noted that the interviewer lacked basic training relating to sexual assault cases, and did not record the interview.
On top of this, the MoD is also responsible for releasing an annual sexual offences bulletin. This bulletin reported that between 2017-2018, there had been 288 service police investigations into alleged sexual offences. However, these figures did not account for a number of other sexual offence categories. Missed off the list were offences relating to possessing indecent images of children, possession of extreme pornographic images, revenge porn offences, sexual communications with a child and criminal harassment offences. Perhaps most shockingly, rape is not currently included on the MoD’s “very serious crimes” list.
Over the years the MoD has intermittently attempted to address the issue of sexual offending within the armed forces. In 2015, for example, the MoD launched a campaign targeted at Army personnel dispelling rape myths. The campaign was initiated by General Sir Nick Carter, the with guidance from Stonewall and Rape Crisis. Its intention was to clarify the meaning of consent. Speaking about the purpose of the campaign at the time, an Army spokesperson said: “The Consent Campaign, which has been endorsed by Rape Crisis and Stonewall, is the latest in a number of internal initiatives that the Army has launched to ensure all of its employees act lawfully and treat each other in a way that is consistent with our values and standards”.
However, these attempts to transform the way that Army personnel understand consent and rape have been ineffective. In March, the MoD released statistics that showed a 35% rise in sexual offence investigations over the last two years. Meanwhile, a recent Army Sexual Harassment Report found that 74% of those questioned had experienced inappropriate comments and 45% had experienced inappropriate touching. Further to this, it found that 21% of Servicewomen had either experienced or observed sexual harassment at work in the last 12 months, 8% of Servicewomen had suffered a serious sexual assault, and 3% of Servicewomen had been raped.
Only 10% of these women ended up making a formal complaint, and of those who did, 70% said they were dissatisfied with the results. This is likely due to the extremely low rape conviction rate within the system. According to the MoD, in the 5 years leading up to 2019, 129 rape cases were heard in military courts martial. Only 10% of these ended up with a conviction. Comparatively, during this period, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reported a civilian conviction rate of between 57% and 63%.
Acutely aware of the Service Justice System’s shortcomings, in a review, Shaun Lyons retired Senior Crown Court Judge, recommended that: “The Court Martial jurisdiction should no longer include murder, manslaughter and rape when these offences are committed in the UK”. The Guardian recently reported that in February, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said he would be ignoring this recommendation.
As a result of systemic failures within military courts, three unnamed rape and sexual assault survivors are contesting the military’s ability to try rape cases. The three Servicewomen, from the Army, Navy and Army Reserves reported the crimes committed against them while in service. However, despite military authorities conducting investigations into the crimes, none of the women have seen justice. None of the cases have resulted in a conviction.
Emma Norton, Director of the Centre for Military Justice who is representing all three women, said that despite the pain they have endured: “These three incredibly brave women have stepped forward to try and persuade the courts that this system has got to change”.
Recommendations put forward to ensure that rape and sexual assault survivors in the military are not treated unfairly, include guaranteeing that only civilian police investigate serious crimes. Additionally, to secure sufficient checks and balances are in place, Liberty suggests an independent expert supervisory body is introduced. Speaking about the importance of introducing these changes, Emma Norton, who is also Liberty’s Head of Legal Casework said: “If the MoD is serious about tackling unhealthy attitudes or patterns of behaviour in the forces, what better way to demonstrate that than by ensuring independent police always investigate and have oversight of those difficult cases?”