A court-martial (plural courts-martial) is a military court that determines punishments for members of the military subject to military law. They are generally found in all nations with militaries to try members of the military for breaches of military discipline. In addition, they may be used to try enemy prisoners of war for war crimes, and the Geneva Conventions requires that POWs who are on trial for war crimes be subject to the same procedures as would be the holding army's own soldiers.
Courts-martial in the United Kingdom
In the United Kingdom, summary offences are dealt with by the accused's commanding officer. The commanding officer acts as a magistrate, but the accused may only be fined, denied pay, have his privileges restricted or be detained for up to 28 days.
Serious offences are considered by a court-martial. The courts also consider cases when the accused is an officer or when the accused demands such a trial. Prosecution is controlled not by the military, but by a Prosecuting Authority that is independent of the chain of command. The defendant's lawyer, furthermore, may be a civilian; costs may be borne by the military.
There are two types of courts-martial: the District Court-Martial (DCM) and the General Court-Martial (GCM). A District Court-Martial may punish the accused with up to two years imprisonment; the General Court-Martial may punish the accused with up to life imprisonment (if the offence is serious enough). There is no capital punishment in the military, though immediately prior to its complete abolition in 1998, it was available for five offences: Serious Misconduct in Action; Communicating with the Enemy; Aiding the Enemy or Furnishing Supplies; Obstructing Operations or Giving False Air Signals; Mutiny, Incitement to Mutiny or Failure to Suppress a Mutiny.
The District Court-Martial is composed of three members and the General Court-Martial of five members; in each case, one member is designated the President. The members may be warrant officers or commissioned officers. The members of the court judge the facts of the case, like a jury. They may also determine the sentence—but in the civilian courts, that power is granted only to the judge. The court is presided over by a Judge Advocate, who is normally a civilian judge from the High Court. The presiding judge may instruct the members of the Court on questions of law and sentencing.
Appeal lies to the Court-Martial Appeals Court, which may overturn a conviction or reduce a sentence. Thereafter, appeal lies to the highest court of the United Kingdom, the House of Lords (the case, like all others before the House, is only heard by a committee of judges known as Lords of Appeal).
During World War I there were a further two Courts Martial. The Regimental Court-Martial (RCM), which rarely sat, and the Field General Court-Martial (FGCM). The FGCM consisted of three officers, one of them normally a Major who acted as president.
Courts-martial in the United States
As in all United States criminal courts, courts-martial are adversarial proceedings. That is, lawyers representing the government and the accused present the facts, legal aspects, and arguments most favorable to each side. In doing so, they follow the rules of procedure and evidence. Based upon these presentations, the judge decides questions of law. The court-martial members apply the law and decide questions of fact. Only a court-martial can determine innocence or guilt. General and special court-martial convictions are equivalent to federal court convictions.
There are three types of courts-martial—summary, special and general.
Trial by summary court-martial provides a simple procedure for resolution of charges involving minor incidents of misconduct. The summary court-martial consists of one individual, typically a judge advocate. The maximum punishment imposable by a summary court-martial is considerably less than a special or general court-martial. The accused must consent to trial by summary court-martial before the court can commence.
A special court-martial is the intermediate level of courts. An accused facing a special court-martial can be sentenced to no more than one year confinement (or a lesser amount if the offense has a lower maximum), forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for six months, a bad conduct discharge (for enlisted personnel), and certain lesser punishments.
In a general court-martial, the maximum punishment is that set for each offense under the MCM, and may include death (for certain offenses), confinement, a dishonorable or bad conduct discharge for enlisted personnel, a dismissal for officers, or a number of other forms of punishment. Before a case goes to a general court-martial, a pretrial investigation under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice must be conducted, unless waived by the accused. An accused before any court-martial is entitled to free legal representation by a defense counsel, and can also retain civilian counsel at his or her own expense.
There are procedures for post-trial review in every case, although the extent of those appellate rights depends upon the punishment imposed by the court and approved by the convening authority. Cases involving a punitive discharge or dismissal or confinement for one year or more will undergo automatic review by the appropriate military (Army, Navy, or Air Force) court of criminal appeals, unless the accused waives such review. The Court of Criminal Appeals can correct any legal error it may find, and it can reduce an excessive sentence. The accused will be assigned an appellate defense counsel to represent him or her at no cost before the Court. Civilian counsel may be retained at the accused’s own expense. Beyond the Court of Criminal Appeals, the accused can petition the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces for further review. That court consists of civilian judges, and it can correct any legal error it may find. Appellate defense counsel will also be available to assist the accused at no charge. Again, the accused can also be represented by civilian counsel, but at his or her own expense. Beyond that court, it is possible to petition the United States Supreme Court to review the case, although such petitions are rarely granted.
Compare with nonjudicial punishment.