HC Deb 18 December 1963 vol 686 cc1249-54

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Secretary of State for War what is the outcome of his inquiry into Major Cory's court-martial; and what proposals he has for remedying procedure to give prisoners a right to bail pending appeal against court-martial decisions.


To ask the Secretary of State for War whether he will now publish the conclusions of the review he has made of the issues arising from the court-martial of Major Cory, a constituent of the hon. Member for Basingstoke.

The Secretary of State for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I will now answer Questions Nos. 56 and 61 together.

Hon. Members will now have had an opportunity of reading the statement on the case of Major Cory.

The House considered whether bail should be granted on Crown Appeal to the House of Lords from the Courts-Martial Appeal Court in the debate on the Courts-Martial Appeal Act, 1951, and doubts as to its appropriateness were expressed on both sides of the House. But to cater for civilians and such very exceptional cases as where a soldier was about to leave the Army this very limited provision was allowed to stand.

Subsequently, in 1960, the House, in the Administration of Justice Act, 1960, confined the grant of bail by the Courts-Martial Appeal Court to certain civilians.

On our view of this case as set out in paragraph 37 of the statement, my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and I do not consider that a need for the provision of bail has been revealed by this case.

Mr. Allaun

While thanking the Minister for his courtesy in giving Hon. Members a chance to study his statement, may I ask whether it is not a travesty of justice that it took 17 months before Major Cory's case came to appeal, by which time he had served his sentence? Are there not similar cases? Why should not a Service man have the same right as a civilian to bail pending appeal? What are the difficulties which the Minister refers to in his statement? Surely they do not outweigh the great injustice which has been done. If legislation is needed, why not have it?

Mr. Ramsden

This case, as the report states, involved an exceptional combination of circumstances. I do not believe that this combination of circumstances, exceptional and regrettable as it was, vitiates the present system, which has been debated and confirmed by the House. On both sides of the House doubt has been expressed about the appropriateness of bail in Service conditions. As I have told the hon. Member, legislation would be required to remedy the matter.

Mr. Freeth

While thanking my right hon. Friend for having put a statement of the results of the review in yesterday's HANSARD, may I ask, first, whether he is not aware that the method of undertaking that review was wholly unsatisfactory in that neither my constituent, nor his legal advisers in Kenya, nor his legal advisers in London, were permitted to give any further evidence to either my right hon. Friend or the Lord Chancellor?

Secondly, is my right hon. Friend not aware that my constituent has had his military career ruined through an act of gross injustice, that he has had to incur heavy legal debts over the last three years, that he has served six months' imprisonment and two months' close detention, all for a crime of which he has been found not guilty, and that now the War Office is suggesting awarding him compensation equivalent only to what he would get if he went out under a "golden bowler" scheme, and without any compensation whatever for the mental anguish, for the imprisonment, for the gross injustice and for the ruining of his career?

Mr. Ramsden

I cannot accept what my hon. Friend has said about the basis for the compensation. The basis for the compensation was in consideration of the findings of the Courts-Martial Appeal Court.

With regard to my hon. Friend's first point, on the question of representations by Major Cory's solicitors in the course of the determination of the compensation, the point at issue was not a legal one such as could be argued between the parties, but the determination of a discretionery ex gratia payment on which I was seeking independent advice.

Mr. J. Morris

Would the right hon. Gentleman now agree that because of the colossal blunders in this case his Department comes out in a very bad light indeed? With regard to the preparation of the prosecution, is he satisfied that the proper legal staff was available to prepare the case? Also, is it not true that the only available professionally qualified accountant in the whole of the command was a National Service corporal? Will the right hon. Gentleman now reconsider the recommendation of the eighth Report of the Estimates Committee that there should be qualified staff available, a recommendation which was rejected by the then Secretary of State in the debate on 18th December, 1962?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman examine the procedure of the Judge Advocate General in giving advice to the Army Council on conditions? In view of the advice given, is it not astonishing that at that stage it was not discovered that something was radically wrong. Will he publish the advice?

Lastly, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why the trial had to last 43 days and why no shorthand writers were available or used? Having regard to the unsatisfactory summing up and the comments of the Court of Appeal, what assurance can we have that there will be no repetition of this sort of thing in the future?

Mr. Ramsden

Matters concerning the Judge Advocate General's Department are for my noble and learned Friend and not for me. The hon. Gentleman referred to the conduct of the prosecution. I think it fair to point out to the House that the Courts-Martial Appeal Court said that the prosecution was conducted with skill and fairness. I have nowhere seen any imputation on the quality of the work by Corporal Sleep, whether in the preparation of the accounts or in his evidence.

The hon. Gentleman said that there were no shorthand writers available. Shorthand writers were available, but the pace of the trial was, in part, determined by the meticulousness of the Judge Advocate, who made a full note in his own hand of the proceedings, which enabled them to be available to him at an earlier stage than a transcript would have been, but this, naturally, contributed to the increased length of the trial.

Mr. Paget

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are most grateful to him for the candour of his statement published in yesterday's HANSARD, and for having taken steps to make it available before Questions came to be answered today?

Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this is a really astonishing tale of muddle in which a very large, although probably inadequate, sum of public money has been wasted? Is he doing anything about the Judge Advocate at this trial, who seems to have put up a terrible performance?

Thirdly, is the right hon. Gentleman doing anything about the Judge Advocate's Department here with his noble and learned Friend? After all, the Courts-Martial Appeal Court is a back stop, and, if one has a look at the proceedings, this was a terribly loose ball ever to have been allowed to get anywhere near a back stop.

Mr. Ramsden

I understand that the Judge Advocate concerned has since been seriously ill and, on the advice of his doctors, has informed my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor that he will not be able to sit again as Judge Advocate and proposes to seek transfer to other duties when he has fully recovered his health. I will look into the other points raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Grimond

Could the right hon. Gentleman be more specific on one point? Is it true, as alleged by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Freeth), that in the compensation there is no element for the distress or damage suffered by this officer?

Mr. Ramsden

No, Sir.

Hon. Members

What does that mean?

Mr. Ramsden

It is not true that there is no element for the distress suffered and the other circumstances mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Freeth).

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

In view of the distressing things that have been discovered as a result of the case, will my right hon. Friend undertake to do two things? First, will he see that a full review is carried out of the rules of procedure in so far as they concern questions of how the evidence is recorded in courts-martial?

Secondly, will he also do his best to clarify in the public mind the position of the Judge Advocate General? Is it not correct to say that he is not an Army officer at all in the true sense of the word, but that the word "General", which is attached to the title, as it so often is, is most misleading in the public mind?

Mr. Ramsden

It is true that responsibility for this case lies in two places—with the War Office and with the Judge Advocate General's Department. As to what we shall do to prevent this kind of thing happening again, we shall set out in greater detail the regulations covering the responsibilities of commanding officers and their superior headquarters in cases where commanding officers themselves choose to operate non-public funds instead of delegating the day-to-day administration to subordinates, and we shall draw attention to the dangers which may come with the use of long charge sheets and to the desirability of restricting the issues which are to be tried by court-martial. I am prepared to discuss with my noble and learned Friend shortening the period of 60 days allowed for the submission of an appeal to the Army Council.

Mr. Freeth

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of my right hon. Friend's reply in relation to his and the Official Referee's treatment of my constituent, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity.