Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Deepcut verdict a 'setback' in fight against sexual abuse in the armed forces

Deepcut verdict a 'setback' in fight against sexual abuse in the armed forces


Scope of inquest too narrow to 'shine a light on the real issues', says military claims lawyer

The inquest verdict into the 1995 death of a female soldier at Deepcut barracks is a setback in the campaign against sexual abuse in the armed forces, lawyers have argued.

Delivering his verdict at Woking Coroner's Court following a three-month inquest that heard evidence from more than 100 witnesses, His Honour Judge Brian Barker QC found Private Cheryl James had not been unlawfully killed.

Barker ruled that the 18-year-old had died from a 'self-inflicted shot' from her own rifle. She had been carrying out lone guard duty at the Surrey army base, which was contrary to army policy.

However, the coroner criticised serious failures in the army's duty of care at the barracks, saying that the culture of the base fell below expected standards. In addition he said the 'haphazard provision of welfare support was insufficient'.

The inquest exposed a highly sexualised environment at the base with some male supervisors seeing young female trainees as a sexual challenge and nowhere for a young soldier to turn for advice or support.

Research from 2014 found that 23 per cent of women in the armed services suffer sexual harassment. The average in other sectors was found to be 12 per cent.

Pte James's family said they felt 'immense disappointment' at the suicide verdict and have called for a public inquiry to be undertaken into the culture at Deepcut. Speaking outside the court, Mr James said: 'It is our opinion that [the evidence] did not lead to this verdict.'

Emma Norton, the lawyer for Liberty and solicitor for Pte James's parents, said: 'Sexual harassment continues to afflict our armed forces more than any other sector - and failings in our military justice system mean those who report an assault are still not guaranteed the fair, independent investigation and support they deserve.'

Controversy has swirled around the police investigation and original inquest into Pte James's death. Surrey police allowed the army to conduct the investigation into the death and no ballistic or forensic tests were undertaken.

Held three weeks after the death, the original inquest lasted just an hour, with key witnesses not called, medical records uninspected, and evidence ignored.

Norton said that the verdict had come two decades too late: 'There should have been an independent police investigation right from the start. The army should have been open about life on that camp from day one.

'Cheryl's family and friends would have been saved 20 years of unnecessary suffering and pain - and things might have changed for the better, serving the interests of the bereaved, serving soldiers, and the British Army.'

Liberty has called for reform of the military justice system to tackle the 'ongoing, pervasive, and deeply damaging culture' of sexualised behaviour and harassment in the armed forces.

Rhicha Kapila, an associate at Bolt Burdon Kemp, said the verdict was the 'latest setback' in the campaign against sexual abuse in the armed forces.

'From the off, the inquest's scope was just too narrow to shine a light on the real issues [Pte James's] case has raised,' she said. 'It is disappointing that the wider culture of sexual abuse at Deepcut barracks, as well as the inappropriate treatment of young females by the chain of command, was not considered.'

The number of sexual abuse reports in the armed forces remains low, despite most servicewomen admitting to having suffered some sort of sexual abuse in a survey carried out by the Equal Opportunities Commission in 2015.

'There is a deeply rooted culture of fear of coming forward,' said Kapila. 'Across all ranks and across all barracks, the motto "shut up and put up" prevails.

'In view of the low number of reported cases, the Defence Committee itself recommends that the [Ministry of Defence] instigate new research into the level of such offences, the actions to tackle it, and to encourage reporting, if there is to be any prospect of change.

'It should be made compulsory for all officers to report all allegations of sexual assault to an independent body for investigation.'

Brigadier John Donnelly, the army's head of personal services, has apologised for the 'low levels of supervision that we provided for the trainees at Deepcut in 1995'.

Pte James was one of four recruits who died there during a seven-year period. Privates Sean Benton, James Collinson, and Geoff Gray also died from gunshot wounds.