UK women launch bid to take rape trials out of military court

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Three women in Britain’s armed forces have launched legal action to stop military courts ruling on rape cases, saying conviction rates are about six times lower than in civilian courts.

The women say they were victims of rape or serious sexual assault by colleagues, but that their cases were badly handled by the military’s own justice system, compounding their trauma.

None of the cases led to a conviction.

Lawyers for the women said they had received “second-best justice” delivered by a military team that lacked trust and expertise in handling rape allegations.

The Centre for Military Justice, a charity representing the women, says reports of rape and sexual assault involving military personnel should be investigated by the police, with trials held in civilian courts.

It has informed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of its intention to seek a judicial review at the High Court.

The MoD said it provided “fair and effective justice” and denied its service was second rate.

“All sexual offences are unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the armed forces,” a spokesman said.

Military police conducted 178 investigations into sexual offences in 2019, yet studies suggest the problem is far worse.

The women’s lawyer Emma Norton said 10% of rapes tried in military courts between 2015 and 2019 resulted in a conviction, against 56.9% to 63.4% in civilian courts.

“The military police service and prosecutors lack experience and expertise in dealing with such crimes,” Norton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday.

“This amounts to second-best justice for victims.”

Norton said the women - two from the army and one from the navy - had suffered post-traumatic stress disorder because of the attacks and their subsequent treatment.

Two are being medically discharged as a result.

“They had these glittering careers and now they’ve been thrown on the scrap heap,” Norton said.

“They don’t stand to gain personally from this challenge because their cases cannot be resurrected, but they want to ensure other serving women and men do not go through this.”

More than 15,600 women serve in the army, navy and air force - 11% of all personnel. Three quarters of victims in reported sex offences in the military last year were women.

Military courts have been allowed to try rape and other serious crimes since 2009.

Norton said this was originally meant to provide a way to handle offences committed by forces overseas, but the vast majority of sexual offences in the military happen in Britain.

A recent external review of the military justice system, commissioned by the MoD, recommended it should no longer handle cases of rape, serious sexual offences, domestic abuse and child abuse in Britain. But the MoD rejected this.

Norton said under-reporting was another systemic problem as victims lacked faith in the military police and prosecutors.

In a 2017 survey, more than 1,200 people in the army alone said they had been the victim of sexual assaults.

Norton said military police had only opened 121 investigations that year across all three services.

Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit