4 Jan 2013

‘Military justice left me unaware I had criminal conviction’

A former RAF airman tells Channel 4 News how a minor disciplinary offence led to a criminal conviction that could have adversely affected his chances of finding work after leaving the forces.

Tom Deacon, 31, is a former Royal Air Force aircraft engineer, who served for seven years, completing two operational tours in Iraq, and who recently failed a CRB check for a civilian job in the aviation industry.

He told Channel 4 News that his case highlights how a lack of fairness in the military justice system could potentially affect troops facing imminent redundancy.

He said: “I’m lucky that I’m employed by a small understanding company that took the time to see past my conviction. At a big airline my career in aviation could have been over before it really began.”

Mr Deacon drunkenly hit a cupboard door with a vacuum cleaner at his barracks in 2007. He was fined just £40 for this incident by his commanding officer during a summary hearing, following a seven month investigation by the RAF police. He thought nothing of it until he left the force in April 2008.

Knew nothing of conviction

During his application for a post in an aviation company, he found out that this minor disciplinary offence had been entered on his record as criminal damage – he had a conviction he knew nothing about.

He said: “I was marched into an office thinking it was purely a disciplinary hearing. It was only a scuffed door and I just wanted to get the punishment over and done with. If I had realised it was a criminal conviction I would have elected for court martial.”

Mr Deacon opted for his offence to be dealt with by summary hearing as opposed to a court martial.

But, as a Channel 4 News report revealed last year, a senior army officer suggests summary hearings are like “kangaroo courts”, alleging that they have a conviction rate of 90 per cent, compared with 50 per cent for court martials, which are ECHR article 6 compliant (fair trial).

Mr Deacon says he was not informed a summary hearing guilty finding would leave him with a five-year criminal record.

‘Offered no legal advice’

He added: “I behaved stupidly whilst drunk and felt I deserved punishment, I was offered no legal advice and had no clue I would have a criminal conviction. I was relieved when it was all over with only a £40 fine. I thought I deserved a greater punishment, but I had no clue I had a criminal conviction.”

Dominic Headley from Nacro’s resettlement advice service, which advises people with a criminal record, told Channel 4 News: “People with criminal records face significant discrimination from many employers.

“Many of those who are now leaving the army may not even know that they have a criminal record. We need the government to act now to ensure that minor military offences are removed from soldier’s civilian criminal records.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “The armed forces operate in a unique environment wherever they are serving in the world so it is only right there is a service justice system that recognises that. This system upholds the highest standards of discipline, professionalism and reflects UK civilian law.”

Military ombudsman

The married father-of-one told Channel 4 News that the military needs to have an independent ombudsman.

He said: “I have tried to get the RAF and MoD to investigate my complaint but they do not reply. The MoD has no independent oversight and it’s scary how their first instinct is to immediately try to cover things up. I hope this government set up an ombudsman with powers who can investigate complaints and help others in my situation with no one to turn to.”

The MoD told Channel 4 News it does not comment on individual cases, but a spokesman said: “The service complaints commissioner provides vital independent oversight of the complaints system to ensure it operates as effectively and efficiently as possible.

“Rather than acting as an ombudsman after an event, the commissioner is able to contribute while complaints are still active. To reduce delays, the commissioner’s role is being strengthened and she will be able to raise any concerns direct with the chain of command.”

FoI requests

Mr Deacon has lodged freedom of information requests to the MoD to find out more about his case, but without success. His complaint to the service complaints commissioner also failed because it was more than three months after the incident. He complained to the civilian police, but no investigation took place.

He agrees with a recent defence committee report, leaked to Channel 4 News, which suggested the service complaints system is “toothless”.
Fortunately for Mr Deacon his new employer turned a blind eye to the criminal conviction found on his CRB check because it was not a terror charge.

But in the next couple of weeks thousands of service personnel will lose their jobs in the latest tranche of defence cuts. This case illustrates the difficulties they may have in finding new work.