On the front line of legal practice

Tim Miller explores the military option and finds out about the strategic operations involved in Army Legal Services

Clad in their nuclear-biological-chemical warfare protection suits, they carried a 'Manual of Military Law' under one arm and a 9mm pistol under the other.

The weapons training and the combat fitness test may have seemed like cosmetic extras when the lawyers were first put through their paces – but Saddam Hussein and Scud missiles changed all that.

The experiences of army lawyers during the Gulf War may not be typical of everyday practice, but they do highlight how life in uniform can become far removed from the civilian legal scene.

At no time is the distance from the days of dark suits and sober ties more pronounced than when an army lawyer first signs up.

“The first few months are a bit of a blur. It's not just a new job, it's new law, frequently a new country, and a new language. If you are posted to Europe, it's not just the German language that you might have to get to grips with, but army-speak as well,” says Lt Col Stephen Vowles, of the Directorate of Army Legal Services (ALS), at Worthy Down in Hampshire.

The culture is very different. This becomes abundantly clear to new recruits who are immediately sent to Sandhurst to cover the same subjects as mainstream officers.

One of the key roles for legal staff is to advise on disciplinary matters and, where necessary, to carry out prosecutions. As officers, they have full rights of audience before a court martial but first they must determine the appropriate jurisdiction.

The 1955 Army Act is “personal” rather than “territorial” and so soldiers are subject to its provisions wherever they are posted. In addition, section 70 of the act requires them to abide by English law, but they will also be subject to the laws of the host nation.

“We often have to negotiate on jurisdiction but, in Germany, we prosecute most things from disobeying orders to murder,” says Vowles.

ALS also provides a legal aid scheme for soldiers and their dependants covering a range of civil matters from matrimonial to personal injury. The army lawyers act as the initial link between a soldier and his civilian solicitor or barrister when he is facing disciplinary action.

The other key peace-time function is training, with lawyers responsible for keeping themselves and others up-to-date on military and operational law.

There is also a dedicated publications legal officer who is responsible for compiling and amending the 'Manual of Military Law'.

When war breaks out, the priorities change with a shift towards operational law. Commanders, devising strategies, rely on lawyers to keep them within the confines of the Geneva Convention, the 1907 Hague Rules and the other restrictions of armed conflict. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait saw lawyers stationed in the Middle East close to the front line, while others advised central staff and senior army command in London.

“At that time, I was made legal adviser to the Camp Commandant at Rollestone, Salisbury Plain, where 34 Iraqi prisoners of war were being held,” says Vowles.

“We recently had an officer who was seconded from ALS to advise at the tribunal in the Hague into alleged war crimes in Yugoslavia,” he adds.

Belize, Northern Ireland, Cyprus – the ALS lifestyle is clearly a world away from private practice, but Vowles is certain of the benefits – travel, variety, the esprit de corps. “The experience can't be beaten,” he enthuses.

He is also adamant about the benefits to the service of keeping the legal function “in-house”. Repeated reviews have concluded that lawyers in uniform are cost-effective.

“You can't send civilians off to war but you can send army officers which is one of the justifications for the uniformed service.

“If you civilianise the lawyers you lose the commitment that an army officer has to the army. You get more out of a soldier because it's a lifestyle not a job. You live it and you wear it,” he adds.