A judge has criticised military investigators following the collapse of a case against army instructors who were accused of bullying teenage recruits.
Twenty-eight young soldiers aged 16 and 17 had claimed they were abused and assaulted during a battle camp exercise by 16 instructors. They said they were slapped or punched in the face, spat at, grabbed by the throat, had their faces submerged in mud and were ordered to eat manure.
The trial process began last month but was stopped after flaws in the way the special investigation branch (SIB) of the Royal Military police handled the case.
An SIB investigator did not speak to possible witnesses including an army major because she assumed they would not be honest about what they had seen.
It took more three-and-a-half years for the case to reach the trial stage. An investigator said it was hampered by lack of resources and staff shortages but the delay was also judged to be unfair to the defendants, all corporals or sergeants.
Some campaigners have argued that the collapse of the case shows that lessons have not been learned since the discredited Deepcut investigation following the deaths of young recruits at a barracks in Surrey.
Assistant judge advocate general Alan Large, who oversaw the case at the military court centre at Bulford in Wiltshire, was scathing over the decision not to interview staff members because of concerns they would not tell the truth.
He said: “[The] assumption that they were all likely to make false witness statements … is frankly startling. It reflects a totally blinkered approach to the police’s duty of establishing, fairly and objectively, what happened.”
The judge added: “The decision to rule out army instructors, warrant officers, a number of captains and a major who was entrusted with the welfare and training of a company of army recruits … was seriously flawed.”
He said: “The investigator should pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry, whether they point towards or away from the suspect. The decision not to interview at any stage during a very long inquiry such highly relevant eyewitnesses is a very serious breach of duty upon police officers to investigate a case fairly and objectively.”
The case centred on allegations of the ill treatment of junior soldiers within the Army Foundation College in Harrogate during bayonet training at a battle camp exercise in Kircudbright, Dumfries and Galloway, in June 2014.
The defendants were not arrested and interviewed under caution until September 2016. The trial stage was reached in February.
An SIB investigator, Capt Teresa Spanton, told the court martial that the resources available had “seriously impeded” the investigation. She flagged up staff shortages and pressure from more urgent inquiries.
But Large said: “None of these is an acceptable reason for such a large investigation proceeding so slowly.”
Rachel Taylor, director of programmes at the charity Child Soldiers International, said: “Twenty years on, the echoes of Deepcut are still all too strong. Army training is by its nature secretive, violent and conducted in isolation, which makes it essential that allegations of mistreatment are investigated in conditions of absolute independence and transparency.
“Parents will think twice before entrusting their child into the care of an employer which is allowed to conduct its own investigations and prosecutions into employees who are accused of seriously assaulting the children they are meant to be supervising.”
ForcesWatch also said it was alarmed at the collapse of the case. Emma Sangster, the organisation’s co-ordinator, said: “The multiple failings in this investigation are alarming. As a result, the cases have collapsed and serious allegations of abuse against some of the army’s youngest recruits have gone untested.
“The army has a special duty of care towards 16- and 17-year-old recruits and the system of dealing with complaints is an important part of this. It is vital that serving personnel are able to trust the military justice system should they experience bullying or harassment.”
The Peace Pledge Union said the collapse of the Harrogate inquiry was further evidence that the armed forces should not be allowed to police themselves and try alleged abusers in their own courts.
Emma Norton, head of legal casework at Liberty, said: “The collapse of this trial – and the catalogue of serious Royal Military police failures that caused it – must be a wake-up call for the Ministry of Defence. The men and women who serve in our armed forces deserve better than this shoddy second-rate justice system.
“When someone commits a crime on British soil – whether soldier or civilian – that crime should be investigated by civilian police. As this scathing ruling shows, military police do not have the resources, expertise or impartiality to conduct proper, fair investigations – and, when they fail, soldiers and their families have no independent oversight body to turn to for help.”