Army lawyers on the front line

Since the con­flict in Afghanistan began, oper­a­tional lawyers from the Legal Ser­vices branch of the Army’s Adju­tant General’s Corps have been trav­el­ling with brigades into all bat­tle zones. Report by Sarah Goldthor­pe.

Troops board a Chi­nook at Camp Bas­tion [Pic­ture: Crown Copyright/MOD]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

After embed­ding and train­ing with their for­ma­tions for 12 months, the 19-strong group of high­ly skilled bar­ris­ters and solic­i­tors deploy to the desert to give sol­diers of all ranks impar­tial legal advice on any aspect of their work — from the obvi­ous top­ics of rules of engage­ment, Gene­va Con­ven­tions, crim­i­nal law and human rights, to the more sur­pris­ing areas of envi­ron­men­tal leg­is­la­tion and divorce. 

Brigadier David Yates, who heads up the Legal Ser­vices branch, explained: 

“The whole ethos of the oper­a­tional law branch is to look after troops while they are on ops, both in terms of what they can and can’t do but also in rela­tion to per­son­al legal advice. But we are not in ivory tow­ers, miles and miles from the front line.” 

By the lawyers’ own admis­sion, this is the best job they have ever had. Cap­tain Ben Tay­lor returned from Lashkar Gah ear­li­er this year, where he deployed along­side both 4th Mech­a­nized Brigade and 16 Air Assault Brigade: 

“It was absolute­ly fas­ci­nat­ing,” he said. “From a legal per­spec­tive you get to see issues play out in front of you; your advice has a real and direct consequence.” 

On the reac­tion of per­son­nel to his guid­ance, he said: 

“Sol­diers usu­al­ly have real­ly good instincts so there are often dis­cus­sions about whether they can act on that or not. 

“Where civil­ians are killed or injured, lawyers might work with sol­diers to under­stand what happened. 

“I did­n’t see any­thing that indi­cat­ed any of our peo­ple had act­ed out­side the rules of engage­ment, but acci­dents hap­pen and that’s the nature of conflict.” 

“From a legal per­spec­tive you get to see issues play out in front of you; your advice has a real and direct con­se­quence.”
Cap­tain Ben Taylor 

Brigadier Yates admit­ted the role is not with­out its challenges: 

“When you are work­ing in urban envi­ron­ments such as Iraq and Afghanistan, where it’s dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish between inno­cent civil­ians and the ene­my, it becomes com­plex,” he said. 

“There are times when fight­ing is pret­ty straight­for­ward legal­ly speak­ing, but peace­keep­ing and deal­ing with insur­gency is more difficult.” 

For­mer crim­i­nal defence lawyer Major Helen Ellis added: 

“It’s about get­ting peo­ple to respond to your advice and giv­ing it a human touch. Telling peo­ple that some­thing ‘is just the rules’ is not enough.” 

Major Stephanie Bea­z­ley said: 

“The job is fast-paced and high-pres­sured and can cer­tain­ly cre­ate some colour­ful sit­u­a­tions. But we must all be pre­pared to deploy as far for­ward as needed.” 

By throw­ing them­selves into the mis­sion in Afghanistan and shar­ing exper­tise with oth­er mil­i­tary forces over­seas, the Legal Ser­vices branch is uphold­ing the British Army’s rep­u­ta­tion for qual­i­ty and professionalism. 

But its ori­gins coin­cid­ed with a peri­od that was any­thing but proud. 

The branch was in its infan­cy when the vio­lent abuse of Baha Mousa by UK troops was brought to light in 2003. 

Hop­ing to right the many wrongs of that scan­dal, and in reac­tion to bur­geon­ing oper­a­tional com­mit­ments, the Ser­vice recog­nised its sol­diers need­ed stronger legal assistance. 

Brigadier Yates, who twice gave evi­dence to the inquiry into the death of the Iraqi civil­ian, explained that a ‘huge amount’ has changed since then: 

“We got five addi­tion­al posts in order to bet­ter address some issues com­ing out of that inves­ti­ga­tion,” he said. 

“Even though the Army is reduc­ing in size, this unit has actu­al­ly grown.” 

British forces have nev­er been under more legal scruti­ny and that, cou­pled with indi­vid­u­als’ increas­ing will­ing­ness to bring pro­ce­dures against employ­ers, means life is get­ting busier for these lawyers: 

“We cur­rent­ly have nine offi­cers in Afghanistan, one in Italy in sup­port of oper­a­tions over Libya, and anoth­er work­ing with the Inter­na­tion­al Mil­i­tary Assis­tance Train­ing Team in Sier­ra Leone,” the senior offi­cer added. 

“When the British Army has ele­ments on stand­by for emer­gen­cies, we also have offi­cers avail­able to deal with those sit­u­a­tions — for exam­ple in the event of chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, radi­o­log­i­cal and nuclear incidents.” 

The com­plex­i­ty of the role and the flex­i­bil­i­ty of the ser­vice­men and women doing it means per­son­nel can be assured they are oper­at­ing well with­in all the rel­e­vant laws, rules and policies: 

“These pro­fes­sion­als have to know their sub­ject, be robust and unafraid to tell a senior offi­cer what he should be doing,” the Brigadier said. 

“You can have the great­est aca­d­e­m­ic lawyer in the world but if they are not cred­i­ble to a com­man­der, they won’t be lis­tened to.” 

This arti­cle is tak­en from the Novem­ber 2011 edi­tion of SOLDIER — Mag­a­zine of the British Army. 

Press release
Min­istry of Defence, UK 

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