by Kwan Jin Yao
GUYS who have watched JAG or NCIS or even A Few Good Men will know that the military justice system here isn’t anything like on television or in the movies. Of course, the military courts here probably deal with fewer cases of the explosive kind, and more with the disappearing acts of going AWOL.
Still, justice is justice and any accused has a right to a defence. But what kind of defence, even for going absent without leave? At the lowest level, your commanding officer can conduct a summary trial in your unit, who then metes out your punishment. But let’s say you thought the conviction and punishment did not take into account personal circumstances at home or the many times your direct commander denied your leave requests. What’s next? You could ask for a review by the Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) Director of Manpower, or elect to be tried by a court martial.
If you opt for a court martial, you can choose to be represented by your own lawyer or have one assigned to you FOC in the form of a defending officer (DO). You go before a Panel Courts Martial. This is the same case too if your offence hasn’t got to do contravening military discipline but say for drug-taking or theft, except that you will be streamed into a Judges Court Martial.
But you’re just a poor full-time NSman, so you opt for a DO from the SAF.
The Sunday Times yesterday highlighted the training of a DO, and it would be a surprise if any man in green, white or blue finds it heartening. Started in 2005, the legal training was revised in July last year “with more of the curriculum focused on the practical aspects of lawyering”. Now get this: it is only a day-long legal training course. ST quoted a lawyer who noted that “the DO, being a non-lawyer, will be at a disadvantage because he will be arguing against a prosecutor who is legally trained and has access to materials for research and support”.
And even so, not all DOs go through this day-long course too.
So, this is the man who will be defending you, a commissioned SAF officer who has graduated from the Officer Cadet School, hothoused in a day and put up against an experienced prosecutor. You could say this is better than having to defend yourself because they are at least trained in court protocol. But what sort of other guidance do they get? How much time do they have to prepare for their cases? What if the case was more complex than a matter of going AWOL.
Now it may be true that many military court cases are simple or straightforward. In a parliamentary reply to Member of Parliament Indranee Rajah on representation during court martial proceedings in February 2007, then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said: “Many of our court-martial cases (about 75 per cent) are straightforward where the facts are clear and undisputed, and the servicemen has elected to plead guilty. This is not different from the civil courts in straightforward cases such as speeding or littering.”
What about the 25 per cent of the more complex cases, in which the facts are not as clear and undisputed? Are there enough DOs – with the requisite training and bandwidth, given their many operational responsibilities – to handle these cases, or to craft cogent mitigation statements? In an environment where the legal training may not be adequate and where manpower could be tight, charged servicemen may feel compelled to plead guilty without a thorough understanding of their case or the justice system in general.
Access to proper recourse is important whether in the military or outside. Like any other organisation the SAF is characterised by a bureaucratic system, yet with the rank structure of the military lower-ranked servicemen could find it difficult to seek redress for transgressions by their direct commanders. One’s experience through National Service (NS), as a consequence, is very much dependent on the quality and ethics of the commanders.
Besides intensifying the training of DOs, the SAF could think about educating servicemen – even when they begin their NS journey at the Basic Military Training Centre – on the military justice system. Simple information on the informal and formal punishment systems, the GCM and its functions, as well as the avenues servicemen can seek redress when punishments are meted out should be shared. What, for example, are the standard operating procedures that should kick in when a serviceman is charged?
Empowering servicemen with such information has the added benefit of holding officers to a higher standard, since they know that their juniors are aware of their rights. Greater awareness and clarity of offences and corresponding punishments could even stem misinformation perpetuated by individuals and online forums, and even serve as deterrence.
In fact, why not give an accounting of how many cases go through the Military Justice System, the types of offences and punishments so that that charged servicemen can try to help themselves rather than just depend on DOs. Unless, of course, they can afford a lawyer.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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