Military and Civil Law: What Support Exists for Armed Forces Personnel?

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Posted: 12th July 2023 by
Lawyer Monthly
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Military service is regarded highly in the UK, as a virtuous act that furthers the safety of the nation.

But military service is often a damaging experience for the thousands that enlist year-on-year. If those damages do not come from physical or psychological harm in action or thereafter, then they may come from complex navigations of the laws surrounding military services – both in terms of military and civil law. But what is there to navigate, and how can it be navigated effectively?

Understanding Military Laws

First, it is important to understand the fundamental distinctions between military and civilian law in the UK. Military law is a much more complex system than civilian law, both in terms of offences enshrined and judicial processes for soldiers charged under military law. In terms of the legal process, military law is upheld through the court martial process – by which military staff populate the ‘court’ and adjudicate each case. 

Military law is upheld by Service Police personnel, and smaller offences are ‘tried’ through summary proceedings; court martials are reserved for more serious offences, and utilise a jury system similar to civilian court proceedings (albeit populated by military servicepeople). 

Legal Support and Resources

A large majority of military legal cases will come before summary proceedings. These are not formal court proceedings, and accused service people do not receive legal counsel or representation for such proceedings. However, support and advice can nonetheless be sought – and should be, as with more serious court-martial proceedings.

To this end, military charities like the SSAFA can be a vital resource for practical advice on how to proceed. There are also military-centred legal advice firms that can be approached free of charge for help navigating the military justice system.

Navigating Common Legal Issues

But not all legal issues stem from within the military justice system. For many veterans of the Armed Forces, their legal experiences are defined through the civilian courts post-deployment. These legal challenges relate to a wide variety of causes – from family law issues, relating to child custody, divorce of the assigning of power of attorney, to direct civil action relating to negligence or injury during deployment. 

In the latter case, military solicitors are a wise option to navigate the difficult tangle between military law and civil law; in the former case, standard family solicitors are best placed to advise. In either case, compensation could be a result of a legal challenge.

Court Martial and Military Justice

Within the military, though, the landscape is somewhat different. As explored earlier, summary proceedings cannot be attended by legal counsel – but, more importantly, the impacts of conviction by summary proceedings or court martial can be grave. Sentencing in military law can lead to conventional punitive measures such as prison, or military-specific sentences such as corrective training at the MCTC.

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