Law on sexual assault in the armed forces changed

By agency reporter
December 14, 2017

The Government has quietly announced a major change to the law that will stop Commanding Officers in the Armed Forces investigating soldiers’ allegations of sexual assault themselves – but they still will nothave to refer complaints to civilian police.

The proposed changes to the Armed Forces Act 2006 come after years of campaigning by soldiers, bereaved families and Liberty – and after Liberty threatened the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with legal action on behalf of a serving soldier if it failed to close the loophole.

Under current law, a Commanding Officer is able to investigate allegations of sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure him or herself – meaning service men and women have a far lower degree of protection and far poorer standard of investigation than civilian victims.

Liberty represents several current and former servicewomen and their families, who have reported rape or other sexual violence while in the Armed Forces.

Liberty first raised this issue with the MoD in 2014. They then cross-examined senior Army personnel on this issue at the inquest into the death of 18-year-old Private Cheryl James at Deepcut barracks, which exposed a toxic sexualised culture. The Government said it would change the law but took no steps to do so.

It was only after Liberty threatened the MoD with judicial review on behalf of a serving soldier that Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed draft legislation had now been laid before Parliament to stop Commanding Officers from investigating allegations of sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure.

However, Commanding Officers are still under no obligation to refer allegations to civilian police – meaning soldiers’ complaints can still be investigated by Royal Military Police soldiers, who lack the training and independence necessary to deal with such serious cases.

Liberty originally wrote to the MoD calling for the change in 2014, on the day a fresh inquest opened into the death of Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement.

Royal Military Police (RMP) soldier Anne-Marie Ellement took her own life after she accused two fellow RMP soldiers of raping her, and her allegations were investigated by the RMP themselves. The then Defence Secretary did not respond.

Liberty then acted for the family of Pte Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut barracks in 1995. At the fresh inquest into her death in 2016, then Head of Army Personal Services Brigadier John Donnelly was cross-examined about the continued ability of Commanding Officers to investigate sexual assaults for themselves and to prevent such matters being referred to the police.

Following the inquest, Defence Minister Mark Lancaster quietly confirmed that legislation would be brought forward to deal with the problem “in due course” – but he failed to take action.

On 24 October 2017, Liberty sent a letter before action on behalf of a serving soldier who had reported being the victim of a sexual assault, insisting that the law should be changed. In response, ministers laid legislation before Parliament on 29 November.

Emma Norton, Head of Casework at Liberty, said, “Service women and their families have been pushing for this reform for many years. This is a huge achievement for them. But the fact that it took the threat of legal action to persuade ministers to give soldiers this most basic protection reveals a disturbing disregard for the rights of the men and women who serve our country.

“Once again we’ve had to use the Human Rights Act to drag the MoD kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But until Commanding Officers are forced to refer all allegations of sexual assault to civilian police, our soldiers will still be subjected to second-best justice.”

Sharon Hardy, Corporal Anne-Marie Ellement’s sister, said “Victims of sexual assault in the military are entitled to proper support and an independent investigation. Under the current system, Commanding Officers effectively act as judge and jury in these cases, despite having no expertise in investigating allegations of sexual crime.

“It is with a heavy heart that I welcome this news. I hope victims of sexual assault will feel safe coming forward in future and the military has learnt from cases like Anne-Marie’s.”

* Liberty


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