Three women serving in the armed forces have begun legal action aimed at preventing the military courts from trying UK rape cases, complaining that the conviction rate is five to six times lower than in civilian courts.
The women, who can not be named for legal reasons, all say they were victims of rape or serious sexual assault while serving. Despite their cases being investigated by military authorities, none resulted in a conviction.
It has been reported that all three women are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their experiences, and two – one from the army and one from the navy – are in the process of being medically discharged.
They are seeking a judicial review after the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, said in February he was ignoring a recommendation that rape and other serious cases involving the military in the UK should routinely be handled by the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Mr Wallace said in a letter that all three complainants have officially reported (either via the service complaints process or via separate litigation) very serious concerns about the quality of the service police investigations and/or decision-making by the Service Prosecuting Authority.
The third woman, an army reservist, reported a rape – which resulted in the accused being acquitted at trial – and a serious sexual assault for which she was told there was no realistic prospect of conviction.
The women are represented by Emma Norton, director of the newly created Centre for Military Justice.
Forces personnel have long been subject to services law and the court martial system, which applies in the UK and abroad. Military courts have been able to try rape and other serious offences since 2009. But in theory civilian law should take precedence where an alleged offence takes place at home.
Sexual assault figures in the military Figures released last year by the Ministry of Defence showed a 13% increase in sexual offences across the armed forces. 95 charges were referred to the service prosecutor in 2018.
153 investigations were conducted in 2018, a 35% rise since 2016. 18 of these were for historical offences, suggesting a rise in the number of people feeling able to come forward and report their assailants.
The most common form of investigation was for sexual assault with no penetration” (71 cases), followed by rape (30 cases).
A total of 129 rape cases were heard at military courts martial in the five years to 2019, 13 of which (10%) resulted in conviction, according to MoD figures. By contrast, the civilian rate during that period ranged between 57% and 63%, according to the CPS.
The majority – around two-thirds – of all sexual offences reported within the military in 2019 followed incidents that took place in the UK, and just over three-quarters of the victims were women. Women now account for 11% of the total armed forces, or just over 15,000 people.
Military abuses deep-seated
Abuses in the military have been ongoing and last year, it was revealed that at least 60 sexual offence allegations investigated by military service police in two years were not reported in official figures.
The review into inappropriate behaviour in the UK's armed forces found a "significant number" of military personnel have experienced "bullying, discrimination and harassment, including sexual".
The service police is made up of the Royal Military Police, Royal Navy Police and Royal Air Force Police. For service personnel, sexual offences can be dealt with either in the civilian justice system or the service justice system - comprising service police, service prosecutors and courts martial. Data on sexual offences investigated within the service justice system is published by the MoD in an annual sexual offences bulletin. The department reported that a total of 288 service police investigations into alleged sexual offences took place in the years 2017 and 2018. However, the figures did not include four types of sexual offences, including possession of extreme pornography, possession or creation of indecent images of children and stalking involving fear of violence.