NOVEMBER 10, 2023 – In the USA, members of the armed forces are governed by different laws from the ones that apply to members of the general public. The military is a very different setting compared with most situations that come up in civilian life, and the legal issues are also very different.
That’s why many military personnel choose to hire civilian lawyers specializing in military law. There are plenty of them around, and they are easy to locate. Finding the best civilian lawyers specializing in military law in Jacksonville FL, for example, is easy. Just visit reeplaw.com and select the services you need from their easy-to-navigate website.
What is the UCMJ?
Military personnel are governed by the normal legal system of the country they reside in, but in addition, they are governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
The US Constitution authorizes Congress to make its own laws for land and naval armed forces. In 1806, the Articles of War were promulgated: the first set of laws specific to the military. This was followed by the promulgation of the Lieber Code in 1863. In 1951, the current UCMJ replaced all former systems.
Some of the offenses specific to military law are things like abuse of authority and dereliction of duty, which are applicable only to serving military officials. The UCMJ also applies to ordinary civilian crime – but when members of the armed forces commit crimes, a different standard of proof is used when determining their guilt or innocence. The punishments prescribed by the UCMJ are also different from the ones used in civilian courts.
Members of the armed forces are subject to the normal legal penalties, such as fines or custodial sentences, if they commit criminal acts. But over and above these penalties, they are subject to additional UCMJ penalties, such as the loss of privileges, confinement, or discharge.
Military Law Legal Proceedings
Military justice is dispensed by the Judge Advocate General’s Corp (JAG). Members of JAG, who are normally called judge advocates, function mainly as legal advisors to the members of their own command. Unlike civilian lawyers, judge advocates have to argue both sides of the case: they can’t choose to specialize either in prosecution or defense but have to do whichever one is required. After serving in the Jag Corps, experienced military officers are often appointed as judges to preside over military cases.
Military Versus Civil Cases
In (civilian) criminal courts, every defendant has the right to legal representation. If a defendant doesn’t have the means to pay for a private lawyer, he or she must be assigned a court-approved lawyer free of charge. In military cases, defendants can also choose between being assigned a free lawyer provided by the army or hiring a lawyer privately.
In the case of civilian criminal trials, lawyers provided by the court for free are often junior lawyers who are obliged to work for free in some cases as part of the process of qualifying to practice law. They are free, but they are not very experienced. Civilian defendants usually prefer to hire their own lawyers unless the fees are too much for them to afford.
Similarly, in military law, defendants in legal proceedings can choose between an attorney provided, free, by the military and a private lawyer. But a military lawyer, unlike a civilian lawyer, is not free to consider only the applicable laws in a particular case. As members of the armed forces, military lawyers are embedded in strict military chains of command. They not only have to obey the law, they also have to obey instructions from higher-ranking officers.
Upsetting the status quo
In most cases, unless such higher-ranking officers are actually corrupt, there shouldn’t be a conflict between what the law says and what somebody’s commanding officer says. However, even if no officer makes any attempt to subvert the course of justice, just the fact that the military has such a rigid, hierarchical structure makes it difficult for more junior lawyers to go against the wishes of their senior officers.
If a senior officer has an interest in seeing a certain outcome in a certain case, there’s quite a good chance that the case will end up going the way the officer wants. For this reason, many people prefer to hire civilian lawyers, even when military legal issues are involved.
On the other hand, it could be argued that nobody who hasn’t personally been in the army can fully understand military legal matters. Moreover, in both military law and civilian law, individual lawyers might be very knowledgeable and skillful in their work – or they might not. In any specific case, try to balance all these considerations when deciding which kind of lawyer to employ.