In April 2013 I attended a meeting in Newcastle’s Central Library organised by Tony Wright, an ex-serviceman who runs Forward Assist, an organisation which works with ex-military personnel, many of whom face problems on returning to civilan life.
The meeting saw and heard a most interesting presentation about Veterans’ Treatment Courts in the USA, and in particular about the experience of Little Rock, Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s old stamping ground.
Several people came over from Little Rock, including a former prosecutor now working in the system, and we saw an interview with the judge who presides over the court.
The veterans’ courts do not try questions of guilt or innocence, only the sentencing of those who plead or are found guilty, and only in relation to the less serious charges.
They have a remarkable record in helping veterans and securing very low rates of re-offending, notwithstanding that many suffer from mental illness, addiction and other difficulties as they try to adjust to non-military life, often after very difficult, troubling experiences as a result of their service.
Inspired by what I’d seen and heard I tabled an amendment to the Crimne and Courts Bill, asking the Government to pilot a scheme in the UK, noting that the North East, which as a region contributes more men and women to the forces than most others, would be a suitable region to test the concept. Previous studies had indicated a significant number of veterans end up in the courts, some of them in prison.
Despite having the support of eminent ex-military members of the Lords like Lord Ramsbotham, who had also served as Chief Inspector of Prisons, Admiral Lord West, and Viscount Slim, I was unable to persuade the Government to accept the idea, though they did ask Cumbrian MP Rory Stewart to look into this and other issues. Rory Stewart seemed interested in the concept and drew many people together in looking at a range of veterans’ issues, including this one, and he involved Dan Jarvis, himself an ex-army officer, now Labour MP for Barnsley.
Unfortunately Rory had to give up the role when he became Chairman of the Defence Select Committee. The Government appointed another Conservative MP, Stephen Phillips QC to complete the work.
This he did, but without involving those who had been previously participated in the review, to the extent that he never consulted on or shared his report which went straight to the Ministry of Justice, provoking protests from Lord Ramsbotham and others.
It is fair to say that many of the report’s recomendations seem helpful, but the treatment of the Veterans’ Courts Issue was dismissive and highly unsatisfactory.
Mr Phillips said he had “not explored in detail the possibility of creating specialist Veterans’ Courts”, but clearly entirely misunderstood how they operate.
He says “any suggestion that former service personnel should be tried in different courts from their civilian counterparts raises the spectre of the creation of other special courts for other public servants in stressful roles such as the police”.
There are only two things wrong with this remarkable statement. First, the courts would not be trying cases, they operate only in relation to sentencing and facilitating the integration of service personnel into society.
Second to compare the “stressful roles” of others, like police, fire officers or ambulance personnel, real though that stress can be, with soldiers who have been in engaged in combat in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances is frankly ludicrous.
We will be faced for years with people who have laid their lives on the line in conflicts ranging from Iraq to Afghanistan struggling to live with their memories and adjust to civil society.
The least they deserve is a proper consideration of a proposal which offers help on the path to their return to civvy street. Why not, at least, test the concept? We owe those who serve in our forces at least that much.
Lord Beecham is a shadow spokesman on justice in the House of Lords. He is also a Labour councillor in Newcastle.