The system of discipline in the armed forces
4.The three armed services operate within a statutory framework of discipline which applies wherever in the world they are based, whether in peace or in times of conflict. In effect, this means that they have their own legal system, although as far as possible this follows the domestic law of the United Kingdom. The statutory basis for this system is the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957, often known collectively as the Service discipline Acts (SDAs). These Acts have to be renewed by Parliament every five years. This is achieved by the Armed Forces Acts, which are also used to update the SDAs. The most recent was the Armed Forces Act 1996.
5.If an offence is going to be dealt with within the armed forces’ system, the Services will be responsible for investigating it and for determining whether a suspect needs to be held in custody during the investigation. Service authorities will also decide whether to prosecute and, if so, will draw up the charges. The decision as to whether an accused should be held in custody pending trial is taken by the Services. Cases are heard in one of two ways: either summarily or by court-martial.
6.A case dealt with summarily is heard by the accused’s commanding officer (CO) except where the accused is above a certain rank, in which case it will be heard by an officer superior in rank to the CO. Courts-martial are composed of a panel of officers and a judge advocate, who fulfils many of the functions of a judge in a civilian court. Courts-martial were generally reserved for the more serious cases or for cases where the accused was of too senior a rank to be dealt with summarily. Since 1997, however, an accused facing summary proceedings in all Army and Royal Air Force cases and in all but minor Royal Navy cases has been able to choose to be tried by court-martial instead. It remains the case, however, that most disciplinary matters are dealt with summarily and that punishments, where cases are found proved, are relatively minor. The vast majority of sentences from summary proceedings are non-custodial.
7.The Service discipline Acts do not just apply to Service personnel. In certain circumstances, the Acts apply to civilians as well. Civil servants, their dependants and the civilian dependants of Service personnel, who are stationed abroad and fall within the command of an officer commanding a body of regular Service personnel, may be tried under the SDAs for offences against English criminal law and a limited number of Service offences.
8.More information about the arrangements which the Act amends is given as necessary in the commentary on the sections of the Act.
The reasons for change
9.The system for administering discipline in the armed forces is kept under review, with the principal vehicle for any legislative changes that may be necessary being the five-yearly Armed Forces Acts. The Armed Forces Act 1996 made substantial changes, reinforcing the independence of courts-martial, to reflect the European Convention on Human Rights. The 1996 Act also extended the right to choose trial by court-martial described in paragraph 6 above.
10.The Human Rights Act 1998 incorporates certain provisions of the European Convention into domestic law. The main provisions of the Act are expected to come into effect on 2 October 2000. The Ministry of Defence has used this as a framework for a further review of the Services' discipline system. The provisions in this Act result from that review. They address areas of the discipline system where there are concerns that the system may not be compliant with the Convention.