Select Committee on Armed Forces Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 936 - 939)

TUESDAY 6 MARCH 2001 (Morning sitting)



  936. Can I say good morning to you all and a particular good morning and welcome to yourself, Mr Miller, and yourself, Brigadier Cottam. I would like to thank you very much for both the oral and the written evidence that you have given to this Committee so far, which we have found very useful indeed in our considerations. We are very pleased to have the opportunity to follow up on some of the issues that have been raised during our evidence sessions, not only with yourselves but with others who have given evidence to the Committee. So thank you very much indeed for, once again, coming along this morning. We want to begin by looking further at the legal representation available for Service personnel and the first particular issue is the availability of Legal Aid for Service personnel in the United Kingdom. Before I call on the first Committee Member, are there any points that you, either yourself, Mr Miller, or yourself, Brigadier Cottam, would wish to make?

  (Mr Miller) I do not think so, thank you, Madam Chairman. It is probably best if we attempt to deal with the questions.

  Chairman: In that case, can I call on Mr Key to open up with some questions?

Mr Key

  937. Good morning, Mr Miller. Can I, first, thank you very much and your colleagues for sending the note to the Committee which is tabled as AFB29 and is dated 1 March.[1] That is the clarification which you have given, for example, on Legal Aid for Service personnel prior to charge. Can I say how delighted that I am and, I suspect, the whole Committee is, with the very good response that you have given us here and the conclusions in paragraph 9 that new Legal Aid arrangements will be introduced as part of the Criminal Defence Service Arrangements by the Legal Services Commission in April. That, I think, is a great step forward and I think a lot of people will be very glad that the Ministry of Defence has been so positive in its response. It does, however, leave one or two questions which still have to be put. May I also say that I think the establishment of the new body which I was told about only quite recently, the Office of Standards of Casework (Army), is also going to be an extremely good innovation, and I congratulate the Ministry of Defence on that too. I think that is going to help a lot of people. However, I still have some problems over the timing of all this. I wonder if you could explain what is the reason for withholding Legal Aid until the Service prosecuting authorities are certain that the prosecution will take place? Is this is a question of not wishing to spend public money on a case which will not proceed, or is there some other reason? It still seems to me that there is a disadvantage to someone in the Services who has been charged compared to a civilian, simply from the point of view of that long delay during which time, in the civilian circumstance, a defence could be worked on.

  (Mr Miller) That gap arises simply because policy at the moment is, so far as possible, to mirror the arrangements under civil Legal Aid. It was not until I saw the transcript of the evidence from Forces Law (I think they call themselves) that I was conscious that there were any particular problems as a result of that. We will look further into that, because clearly if a twelve-month delay—which I think was the figure that was quoted on that occasion—is at all common, then we do need to rethink what we are doing. Clearly, it will take some time to weigh it up properly because there is an issue of public money here; I do not particularly want to spend public money enabling solicitors to prepare defences for cases which will not actually come to court. Indeed, I suspect that most solicitors, even if they are paid for it, would still rather not waste their time in that way.

  938. What legal assistance is available to a Service person tried at Court Martial in Germany, and what costs are they required to meet themselves? Has there been any change in recent years?
  (Mr Miller) Until, I think it was, April last year they were entitled to civil Legal Aid, so if they employed a civilian lawyer that would be paid for. Last year the civil Legal Aid scheme ceased to operate abroad, so at the moment if a serviceman wants a civilian lawyer as opposed to a Service lawyer he will have to pay for it, but that will end next month when under the new scheme he will again be eligible for civilian Legal Aid.[2]

  939. That falls under the circumstances that have been described earlier. That is good news. Can I ask about the Royal Navy, in particular? In the vast majority of serious cases a seaman will be repatriated. In those circumstances do they have a choice of a civilian solicitor or a Service representative?
  (Mr Miller) When they come back to the United Kingdom, yes.

1   See Appendix 18. Back

2   Note by witness: In fact, there has been no interruption in the availability of civilian legal representation under the Services' legal aid schemes for personnel facing court-martial either in the United Kingdom or overseas. The changes in the civilian legal aid arrangements introduced in December 1999 for individuals overseas only affected, as far as Service personnel are concerned, these few cases where they wished to be advised in person by a United Kingdom-based civilian lawyer at a police interview, prior to charge. Back

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