Tackling sexual assault in the military

Military sexual harassment continues to afflict our service personnel; hence, it is fundamental that all allegations of assault are taken seriously, and investigated fairly.

It has become increasingly apparent that sexual complaints, minor or otherwise, have been ignored and investigations delayed or poorly executed. It was clear in the inquest into the death of Private Cheryl James who committed suicide at the Deepcut barracks over 20 years ago, that senior soldiers viewed young females as a “sexual challenge” not forgetting the “deeply –rooted culture of fear”  of victims to come forward. 

Under the current Armed Forces Act 2006, sexual assaults short of Rape or penetration do not have to be reported by Officers to the ‘Royal Military Police’ and onward to the ‘Director of Service Prosecutions’, thus leaving this decision to the discretion of the Commanding Officer. The House of Lords considered amendments to this legislation only days after two men were acquitted of the Rape of Corporal Anne- Marie Ellement who had later committed suicide. 

The second investigation into her death was adjourned after the Ministry of Defence found 1,400 unseen files, 29 of which were relevant to her suicide. At the time, campaigners alleged an official cover- up and conspiracy.  The case highlights systemic failings in the forces to deal with and investigate sexual complaints, even those of a very serious nature, let alone those that do not even require compulsory reporting under current legislation. It is poor that it has taken these deaths to consider fresh amendments to the current law. 

Commanding Officers, despite having access to legal advice are often not up-to-date on what is considered to be a sexual assault. This in turn leads to many complaints thought to be “harmless” or even a “joke” without being investigated or taken seriously. Thus leaving victims too fearful to report, concerned that they will be seen as a ‘trouble maker’ and unable to promote. This has also led to fears of a closed culture, protecting suspects. 

It is therefore a welcomed move by the Government to  pass the amendment to the ‘Armed Forces Act 2006’ to include offences of “sexual assault, voyeurism and exposure” to the legislation. Commanding officers who become aware of sexual allegations will now be legally obliged to inform the police. The RMP will now have a duty to pass on the case file to the Director of Service Prosecutions.  In the past, Commanding Officers used their discretion with regards to making the service police aware, and only flagged up cases of the most serious allegations of Rape. 

The draft secondary legislation is a welcome step to lawyers like myself who have been campaigning for sexual assault investigations to be taken away from Commanding Officers and into the hands of the police. It is fundamental that these investigations are conducted fairly and independently. The question remains, however, as to whether the legislation should be taken a step further to make it compulsory for those investigations to be handled by the ‘civilian’ police as opposed to the RMP. The family of Corporal Anne- Marie Ellement recently called for the civilian police to be involved in similar cases such as hers because they alleged that the  “Royal Military Police is fundamentally failing soldiers”. 

Despite changes to the law, it is essential that the Armed Forces train their Officers on the seriousness and sensitive nature of these sexual complaints, and to encourage victims to report. Victims need to feel re-assured that there is no longer an embedded culture of closing ranks and that those accused will no longer be protected. It is fundamental, in my view, that the investigating authority is seen to be independent if anything is to change. 


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