HMS Vigil - the investigation so far and what might happen next

10th September 2021 Business Crime

BBC’s newest drama, Vigil, has found us gripped and quite literally submerged in the underwater world of a royal navy submarine. We see Suranne Jones star as a police officer, DCI Amy Silva, investigating the suspicious death of Royal Navy Officer Burke.

When a criminal offence is alleged within the armed forces, be that the Royal Navy, the Air Force, the Military, how might the investigation differ from a ‘normal’, civilian police investigation? Is the portrayal of the investigation into Officer Burke’s death accurate? Why is the investigation being conducted by a civilian police officer, rather than the Services Police?

What is the Services Police?

The Services Police was established to investigate criminal offences alleged and is made up of three branches - the Royal Naval Police, the Royal Military Police and the Royal Air Force Police.

The Services Police have similar and wide ranging powers, akin to that of civilian police forces - powers of arrest, search powers and powers of reasonable force in circumstances required.

The Service Police’s powers to investigate alleged criminal conduct by the armed forces is broad. The Service police may investigate offences from assaults, thefts, to frauds and sexual offences.

It however remains the case that civilian police forces may investigate criminal offences that armed forces men and women are alleged to have committed. A presumption in fact applies that the civilian police forces have ‘primacy’ and therefore may intervene in circumstances in which it is deemed appropriate. Until 2006 and the introduction of the Armed Forces Act, the Service Police were in fact barred from investigating the offence of rape and it was considered that the most serious offences, deemed to be murder, manslaughter and rape ought to always be investigated by civilian authorities.

Following the 2006 Act, the Services Police acquired the ability to investigate such offences including rape, although after taking the immediate action necessary to persevere a crime scene it was directed that the civilian police would assume conduct of murder and manslaughter cases. The rationale cited as the superior levels of expertise in civilian police forces to investigate such crimes and additional independence from the services.

The involvement of DCI Silva (Suranne Jones) in the investigation of Burke’s death is therefore accurate and what we would expect to see in light of the nature of the crime being investigated. In circumstances where other, less serious offences are alleged with the armed forces we would routinely expect to see the investigation being conducted by the Services Police, including the obtaining of witness statements and securing evidence, suspect interviews and reporting to the Services Prosecution when a charging decision (whether they will be charged with any criminal offences) is to be made.

What would happen next?

Spoiler alert!

Whilst we wait for the next Sunday night instalment of ‘Vigil’ - what might we expect to happen next?

If one of the many current suspects is charged with the murder or manslaughter of Officer Burke, the conduct of the case would most likely be assumed by the Crown Prosecution Service and proceed to the civilian Crown Court.

The Court Martial has jurisdiction over all service personnel, as well as civilians subject to service discipline (contractors, teachers, administrative staff) and can hear all types of criminal cases, including murder and serious sexual offences. However, in the case of Burke, given the involvement of the civilian police in the investigation, we would expect to see the case tried in the civilian Crown Court.

On board HMS Vigil, it has been revealed to date that a number of officers may have been involved in offences linked to the death of Officer Burke, such as possession of drugs and assault (we originally suspect that Burke may have died over a drugs overdose from drugs smuggled on board, as well as it being revealed that he was punched by Lt Commander Prentice).

For such offences, if charged, those Offices accused of an offence would appear before the Court Martial, appearing initially at a preliminary (‘first appearance’) hearing and depending on their plea, their case would either be adjourned for a sentence hearing or the case would be listed for a trial before the Court Martial.

Whether tried in the Crown Court or Court Martial, the trial processes bare many similarities. Those facing trial in the Court Martial would be tried by a Judge Advocate and a board of three to seven officers, rather than a jury which would try the case in the Crown Court.

What sentences might be imposed?

Reference has been made by the Officers who are suspected of killing Officer Burke to concerns about their careers being over. As is the case for many service men and women, their career is their primary concern and they cannot imagine life outside of armed forces.

The concerns of Vigil’s crew members are rightly placed; one of the punishments following sentence that can be considered by the Court Martial is that of dismissal from the armed forces. If any of the offices face Crown Court trial (likely those eventually charged with Burke’s murder), if convicted after trial their sentence of imprisonment would be served in civilian prison, whereas any officers sentenced to imprisonment following Court Martial would find themselves detained at the Military Corrective Training Centre (MCTC) in Colchester. Additional wide-ranging sentences that can be imposed by the Court Martial include fines and a reduction in service rank.

All sentences and criminal proceedings, whether in the Court Martial or Crown Court, for service men and women will have significant and wide reaching consequences for themselves and for family members. It is therefore essential that expert advice and representation is obtained from the outset, including at the Services Police investigation stage. As DCI Silva correctly highlights before she steps on board Vigil, if she expected to investigate the death of Burke, a solicitor should also be present on board! We just hope those on board seek representation as soon as possible!

If you or someone that you know is an armed forces personnel who seeks advice, and or presentation in relation to ongoing or potential proceedings, get in touch with our expert team of military lawyers at JMW today for advice in relation to any offence that you may face. Call us on 0345 241 5305 or complete our online enquiry form and we will get back to you.

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Catherine O'Rourke is an Associate Solicitor located in Manchester in our Business Crime & Regulation department

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