An inside look into Canada’s military justice system

Tags: |

The military justice system belongs to all of us who wear military uniforms, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure it remains relevant, impartial, and effective.

Although military courts martial are open to media and the public, few Canadians ever experience one first-hand. As a result, they have little data by which to judge the criticism of pundits who claim that the system is antiquated and not impartial. I recently had the opportunity to serve for the first time in my 27-year military career as the senior panel member (juror) for a court martial. I was highly impressed with what I saw and experienced and want to share my observations to better inform debate on the need for a unique military justice system.

My strongest impression was the impartiality and professionalism of the court martial process. The trial was presided over by a military judge, appointed by the governor in council, and completely independent from the military chain of command. An officer of the court ensured the efficient operation of the process, and ensured that there was no inadvertent contact between defence counsel, the prosecution, the judge, witnesses, and members of the court martial panel. The accused was represented at no personal cost by a senior military lawyer with significant legal experience inside and outside the Armed Forces.

As in a civilian court, the military judge ruled on all aspects of the law and sentencing, while the job of the panel members was to judge the facts and render a verdict. The military judge gave the five panel members (jurors) specific instructions at the beginning of the trial, and again just prior to our deliberations. He clearly outlined our obligations, stressed the need for impartiality, and explained in detail the elements of each charge that needed to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in order to render a guilty verdict. It was clear to all panel members that the accused was innocent for the duration of the trial, and that this would only change if every legal element under a charge was proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

I personally found deliberating a difficult and complex process. There were many multifaceted factors to be considered, including the evidence given in dozens of documents entered as exhibits, and the testimony of multiple witnesses during the trial. Three of the panel members were commissioned officers, and two were senior non-commissioned members. I was impressed by the seriousness they placed on their responsibilities, and the professionalism and fairness they exhibited during the entire process. We spent many hours deliberating, and in the end returned a mixed verdict: guilty on some of the charges, and not-guilty on others.

I firmly believe the Canadian Armed Forces needs a military justice system. As members of the Armed Forces, we are placed in unique and demanding situations, the complexities of which are not well understood by those with no military service. Due to our frequent deployments overseas and into conflict zones, we need a justice system that is exportable and takes into account the international laws of armed conflict as well as the difficult situations into which our troops can be placed. Members of Canada’s Armed Forces are held to a higher standard of conduct owing to the duties and responsibilities entrusted to us. As a result, there is a need for a fair, flexible, and fast system to resolve minor offences in order to maintain good order and discipline in military units.

My view is that the military justice system belongs to all of us who wear military uniforms, and it is our collective responsibility to ensure it remains relevant, impartial, and effective.

Colonel Jay Janzen is director of public affairs operations at the Department of National Defence.
Reprinted courtesy of The Hill Times.

Date modified: