Commodore Robert Fraser: Naval Legal Service

Hollywood would have us believe the role of a judge advocate general – or JAG – is confined to the courtroom, engaging in shouting matches with a few good men. While that is not exactly how he spends each day, the UK’s Naval Legal Service (NLS) director Commodore Robert Fraser does admit that his job is not quite the same as office-bound private practice lawyers would be used to.

Advising on international and criminal law, wartime conflicts and multibillion-pound equipment contracts at the very cutting edge of military technology is all just part of the job. And then there is the day-to-day administration and employment issues that come with a fleet that includes surface, submarine and air arms, as well as frontline Royal Marine troops.

NLS lawyers are currently deployed to Afghanistan with the Royal Marines commandos, with their list of duties including investigations into troop conduct, liaising with local authorities and advising battle commanders in rules of engagement.

Fraser, who joined the navy in 1974, is perhaps understating when he says the variety of NLS work keeps him, and his legion of lawyers, interested and active.

“I think part of the job satisfaction comes from the variety of work we do. We’ve found that in general our people are staying [in the service] for an average of 16 years,” Fraser says, adding that the length of service is testament to the experience and quality of work on offer.

Leading a legal team of 40 serving officers from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines under the auspices of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – a service with an employment base of more than 40,000 – is a mammoth task. But like any good commander, for Fraser the real challenge is trying to manage his resources effectively.

“As the navy continues to grow our real challenge is to make the best use of the lawyers we’ve got and I think we do that very well,” he says.

A graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies, before completing a six-month course in International Law at All Souls College, Oxford, Fraser has since served on a string of naval committees, shaping the structure and deployment of naval officers, legal and otherwise, worldwide.

Fraser also spent three years working in the role of equerry to the Prince of Wales, sat as a JAG until 2003 and was elected by the Lord Chancellor as recorder in the Crown Court in 2000.

Unlike other defence force services, the Royal Navy only recruits its lawyers from within its pool of serving officers who have proven front-line experience – you have to serve your country before you can serve in the legal team. Successful candidates qualify as barristers externally before returning to full-time military service.

Before staff in the NLS can consider specialising, they are required to work in non-legal posts.

“The fact that we’re providing well-qualified lawyers is welcomed by the commanders, who like the fact that these lawyers already understand the service,” Fraser says. “It’s certainly more of a career because, by the time you’ve become a lawyer, you’re already professionally qualified.

“It’s a career that tends to give people a strong identity of who they are, as well as teaching them about loyalty. To serve in this type of role you have to have a sense of adventure.”

The NLS keeps most of its work in-house, although Fraser says the in-house team has forged a close relationship with Portsmouth-based Biscoes Solicitors, which specialises in military issues.

Since his promotion to the director’s chair, Fraser counts formulating the Armed Forces Act 2006 as his biggest achievement to date. The act, which has been in the pipeline for six years and which received Royal Assent last November, harmonises the arrangements for service discipline across the MoD’s three services.

“At last we’re operating under the same system, which makes everything fairer and more transferable,” Fraser says. “The legislation hasn’t been rewritten for 50 years, so it’s a big deal.”

The NLS has also been forced to make radical changes in light of challenges from the European Court of Human Rights concerning non-herosexual minorities. In 1999, the court held the UK’s policy of excluding homosexuals from the armed forces based solely on their sexual preference as being illegal. As a result the UK eliminated all restrictions on gays in its military forces.

“We’ve been receptive to change and I think that’s something we can be very proud of,” says Fraser.

It is just one of the many changes and challenges that the NLS faces. In a world where courtroom battles are fought just as fiercely as those on the front line, Fraser and his troops are spearheading a service to be proud of.
Commodore Robert Fraser
Head of Legal and Compliance
Naval Legal Service, Royal Navy

Organisation: Naval Legal Service, Royal Navy
Sector: Defence
Turnover: £3.9bn
Employees: 40,000
Legal Spend: £1.5m
Head of Legal and Compliance: Commodore Robert Fraser
Reporting to: 2nd Sea Lord Vice-Admiral Adrian Johns
Legal capability: 40
Robert Fraser’s CV Education:
Graduate of the Royal College of Defence Studies; completed six months International Law study at All Souls College, Oxford
Work history:
1974 – joined Royal navy
1984 – called to the bar
1989-2003 – sat as a judge advocate
1990-94 – equerry to the Prince of Wales
1994 – member of the Royal Victorian Order
1997-1998 – briefing officer to First sea Lord
1999-2001 – director of staff at the Nato Maritime headquarters in Naples
2000 – recorder in the Crown Court
2004-05 – secretary to the Chiefs of Staff Committee in the ministry of Defence