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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 11:30 GMT
Q&A: Courts martial
British soldier in southern Iraq
The military has a separate system as life is very different
As the government unveils plans to overhaul the UK military's justice system, BBC News looks at how courts martial currently work.

What are courts martial?

A court martial is a legal military hearing, similar in many ways to a civilian court of law.

It investigates a serious breach of discipline that cannot be dealt with by the commanding officer of the individual involved.

This may be because of the rank of the alleged offender, or the gravity of the charge.

The commanding officer refers the matter to higher authority who in turn hands the case to the relevant service's Prosecuting Authority.

Are they fair and open?

They are open to the public.

They are governed by the Army Act 1955, the Air Force Act 1955 and the Naval Disciplinary Act 1957.

Every effort is made to ensure fairness.

The Army Prosecuting Authority, for example, is made up of trained lawyers who are in the military but who are not part of the chain of command.

This means they can make an independent judgement from the outset whether or not a case should go to court martial.

The accused receives copies of all prosecution evidence and he or she is entitled to a defence lawyer - either a civilian barrister or a legally-trained officer - and is given help in paying for this.

Evidence is presented and there is the cross-examination of witnesses, just like in a non-military trial.

Are there different types of courts martial?

There are - and there also may be minor differences between each of the armed services since each has a separate, but broadly similar, code of discipline.

In the Army, for instance, routine offences would be dealt with by a district court martial, which can impose maximum sentences of up to two years' imprisonment.

More serious, complex or sensitive cases are dealt with at a general court martial, which has no sentencing limits but imposes punishments up to the maximum allowed for a similar offence in civilian courts.

Why does the military have a separate system of justice?

The armed forces are disciplined services with clear and strict rules of behaviour.

Military life is very different from civilian life. People are given orders and expected to carry them out.

They are expected to discharge their duties in particular ways.

The civil justice system is designed for a very different environment, though if a soldier were to commit a crime beyond the barracks against a civilian, for example, then the civilian legal process could also come into play.


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