§ 3.7 p.m.
§ LORD RUSSELL OF LIVERPOOL
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
§ [The Question was as follows:
§ To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will, without delay, take the appropriate legislative and/or administrative action to ensure that in future no officer in the Royal Navy can be tried by court-martial unless there has been a preliminary investigation of the charge or charges preferred against him; such preliminary investigation to consist of a summary of evidence, taken on oath in the presence and hearing of the accused, with all the witnesses present whom he shall have the opportunity of cross-examining, and may himself call witnesses in his defence and give evidence on oath or make a statement not on oath.]
§ THE PARLIAMENTARY UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR THE ROYAL NAVY (LORD WINTERBOTTOM)
My Lords, it is not desired, nor is it necessary, to make mandatory a formal preliminary investigation before the trial of officers by naval court-martial. An investigation may always be held at the discretion of a commanding officer if, after hearing allegations against an officer, he is in doubt whether there is a case to be tried.
I do not think it is unanimously agreed that committal proceedings or formal preliminary investigations are either useful in the administration of justice or a safeguard for the accused. I have heard them described as archaic and time-wasting, 138 and constituting a risk in prejudicing the accused's case. But, as I have said, when a commanding officer decides they can serve a useful purpose, they can be held as preliminaries to naval officers' courts-martial.
I should perhaps explain that under naval court-martial procedure the accused officer receives in good time before his trial not only copies of the charge sheet and the list of prosecution witnesses and summaries of their evidence but also of the circumstantial letter. This circumstantial letter in naval procedure takes the place of the prosecutor's opening speech. I think it fair therefore to claim, my Lords, that the accused in a naval trial is in a very much better position for preparing his defence than at any other trial, whether Service or civilian.
§ LORD RUSSELL OF LIVERPOOL
My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord for his Answer which, frankly speaking, dismays me. In view of that, it obviously would be quite a waste of time to ask him any further questions.
§ VISCOUNT DILHORNE
My Lords, is it not the case that in Army and in Air Force courts-martial it is not always necessary to have a summary of evidence; that there can be an abstract of evidence, and that this proposal would apparently involve a change in both Army and Air Force law if the law of all three services is going to be the same?
§ LORD WINTERBOTTOM
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Viscount for bringing this point to the notice of the House.