Liberty calls for reform following Cheryl James verdict

By agency reporter
June 3, 2016

The Coroner in the inquest into the 1995 death of Private Cheryl James at Deepcut Barracks has today (3 June 2016) recorded a verdict of suicide, delivering a narrative verdict that severely criticised serious failures in duty of care at Deepcut barracks.

Judge Brian Barker QC delivered his conclusions at Woking Coroner’s Court following a three-month inquest which heard evidence from more than 100 witnesses.

Cheryl was 18 and undergoing initial training when she was found dead with a bullet wound on 27 November 1995. Surrey Police immediately allowed the Army to take over the investigation into her death. No ballistics or forensics tests were conducted.

The original inquest, held three weeks after her death, lasted just an hour. Key witnesses were not called, medical records uninspected and important evidence ignored.

In 2011, Cheryl’s parents Des and Doreen James approached the civil and human rights organisation Liberty, who threatened Surrey Police with legal action under the Human Rights Act unless they provided access to the materials held concerning Cheryl’s death. 

Over the next two years, Surrey Police released more than 90 lever-arch files of statements, documents, forensic evidence and photographs, allowing the family to apply for a fresh inquest.

Judge Barker ruled that Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights was engaged and this enabled him to deliver the critical narrative verdict.

Liberty represents the families of three of the four young recruits who died at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002 – including Ptes Sean Benton and James Collinson – and will continue to seek the fresh inquests they and their families deserve.

Following today’s verdict, Liberty is calling for a meaningful reform of the military justice system to tackle the ongoing, pervasive and deeply damaging culture of sexualised behaviour and harassment in the Armed Forces.

Emma Norton, Lawyer for Liberty and solicitor for Mr and Mrs James, said: “This day has come 20 years too late. There should have been an independent police investigation right from the start. The Army should have been open about life on that camp from day one. Cheryl’s family and friends would have been saved 20 years of unnecessary suffering and pain – and things might have changed for the better, serving the interests of the bereaved, serving soldiers and the British Army.

“It is not good enough for the Army and Ministry of Defence to wait two decades, point to the things that have changed and pat themselves on the back for saying sorry. Sexual harassment continues to afflict our armed forces more than any other sector – and failings in our military justice system mean those who report an assault are still not guaranteed the fair, independent investigation and support they deserve.

“If there was ever a day for the MoD to commit to change and show they actually care about ending this toxic culture, today is that day.”

In 2016, it remains lawful for:

  • A Commanding Officer in the Armed Forces to choose to investigate an allegation of sexual assault him or herself. There is no legal requirement – as there is for most other criminal offences – to refer the matter to the police.
  • Military police to investigate serious criminal offences including rape, sexual assault and other violent crime.

Liberty is campaigning for the Government to amend the law to end these practices and embed independence and fairness for our troops at the heart of the military justice system. 

Liberty says the inquest exposed to public scrutiny the deeply toxic environment in which Cheryl and hundreds of other young soldiers lived. It revealed:

  • Unworkable supervision ratios of as few as one supervisor to 200 trainee soldiers.
  • Unsupervised access to alcohol, including for under 18s.
  • No formal welfare policy and essentially no welfare support for young people, many of whom were vulnerable and away from home for the first time.
  • A highly sexualised environment with some male supervisors seeing young female trainees as a sexual challenge – and nowhere for a young soldier seeking advice and support to go.

These failures were only admitted by the MoD for the first time during the inquest, more than 20 years after Cheryl died.

Emma Norton said: “The evidence revealed a brutal and morally chaotic environment, particularly for young women, which amounted to a deeply harmful failure in the duty of care they were owed.”

The inquest revealed Surrey Police conducted no investigation whatsoever in 1995, leaving the military police to investigate a sudden death on military property themselves. This amounted not to an investigation into a potential crime, but to a preparation of a series of statements for the then Coroner based on an assumption of suicide.

Given the lack of any basic policing and forensic work at the scene, Surrey Police’s agreement to investigate in 2002 came too late, says Liberty

The organisation said that Investigating officers’ behaviour was deeply inappropriate at times and internal memorandums have revealed that – before the bulk of witnesses were interviewed and expert evidence obtained – senior officers believed they had enough information to be satisfied as to how Cheryl and the three other recruits had died, and needed only to focus on why they had died.

* Liberty


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