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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 17:53 GMT
How military justice is being reformed
By Paul Adams
BBC News defence correspondent

British Army
The new rules mean commanding officers will not be able to halt cases
It's being called the biggest overhaul of the military criminal justice system in fifty years.

The last time the three separate Service Discipline Acts were fully revised was in the 1950s. Now, for the first time, an effort is being made to harmonise these separate systems.

At a time when the military is thinking more and more in terms of "joint" operations - involving all three branches - the Ministry of Defence has decided that the time has come for a more streamlined system of justice.

It's been on the cards for some years. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review spoke of "the need for a single tri-Service Discipline Act."

Officials are anxious to dispel the notion that this is something cooked up as a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent high profile legal cases.

There are several key changes, apart from the creation of a single court martial system and a harmonised range of offences.

Police informed

Perhaps the most telling one is the decision to strip commanding officers of their ability to deal single-handedly with serious incidents and prevent charges being brought, if they are convinced that their troops have observed the correct rules of engagement.

From now on, the service police will have to be informed of all serious matters and cases will have to be referred directly to the independent Director of Service Prosecutions.

The commanding officer will not be able to change the outcome of such cases, but will merely be kept informed.

Army cadets
It is not clear whether the new rules will speed up the system

In one case last year, Trooper Kevin Williams was tried for murder at the Old Bailey after his commanding officer had previously dismissed the case, preventing a court martial. His case collapsed and he was acquitted.

But under the new legislation, his case would never had reached the civilian courts. In the words of a defence official, speaking today, "now we can keep it in the military system".

Less clear is whether the new system will speed up a system of military justice which has often been condemned as cumbersome and slow.

The involvement of the prosecuting authority at an earlier stage in investigations could cut down the time it takes for cases to come to court.

As the new legislation comes in, out go some archaic provisions. The new bill might retain offences like failure to escape and the unlawful taking of ships and aircraft as "prize", but out goes "scandalous conduct of officers".

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