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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 15:02 GMT
Military justice reforms planned
Army cadets

Plans to merge the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force prosecuting agencies into one justice system for the first time have been unveiled by ministers.

The Armed Forces Bill - intended to modernise the system - includes a new harmonised list of offences.

It would also scrap a commanding officer's power to deal with serious cases - such as murder or rape - summarily, avoiding a court martial.

Instead, such cases would have to be referred to the service police.

Defence Minister Don Touhig said the bill was designed to provide "modern and harmonised rules" to meet the needs of the services at a time when they were increasingly required to work together.

He denied it was a reaction to a series of controversial military trials arising from the conflict in Iraq.

Earlier this year, Trooper Kevin Williams was tried and cleared of murder in a civilian court after shooting dead a man while on patrol in Iraq.

Trooper Williams
Trooper Williams' commanding officer had dismissed his case

He had maintained he was protecting himself and a colleague, believing their lives were at risk.

The case had previously been dismissed by Trooper Williams' commanding officer, which meant he could not be tried by court martial.

As a result it was automatically referred to the attorney general who requested a Scotland Yard inquiry.

Defence officials confirm Trooper Williams' case would have been handled differently under the new rules.

Mr Touhig told BBC News: "Under the proposals in this bill, of course, the [commanding officer] would not have had the opportunity to dismiss an allegation.

"It would need to be independently investigated by the service police. That we think is the proper way to do it."

Mr Touhig said he remained committed to the principle that the armed forces needed a separate system of law.

Obsolete offences

He also indicated that ministers would be prepared to switch more resources to the Royal Military Police Special Investigations Branch if it was considered necessary.

Other proposed changes in the new bill include introducing a single standing court, the size of which would be determined by the scale of the offence being tried.

The selection of the court's members - or jury - would in future ensure that they had no connections or prior knowledge of the defendants.

Some historic offences, now considered obsolete, would be scrapped.

These include "scandalous conduct of officers" and "negligently causing an aircraft to be sequestered by a neutral state".

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