In 1279, Edward I decreed that the King ought to have the power to command the nations military forces. This also granted him the power over army discipline and regulation for the first time, as well as full command of military offences. This authority also gave him joint command over any civil offences committed by soldiers along with the civil courts.
In the beginning, the Court of the Constable and Marshal was created which dealt with all military law. At the launch of every military campaign, the King would implement a list of Rules and Ordinances of War written by him. This list shaped the bedrock of military law during this period. The list defined what could and couldn’t be executed by serving soldiers. It became known as Articles of War, which defined offences such as disobedience and desertion as punishable offences.
As a result of the incumbent Lord High Constable’s conflict with Henry VIII, the office was forfeited straight to the King in 1521. This also led to the Lord High Constable’s beheading. Court sittings became more rare, which diminished its powers. and it became entirely consumed by committees of officers. This committee was known, at first, as Marshal Courts before later being renamed as Courts Marshal.
The Courts Marshal developed their own procedures and protocols during the 1600s. This was mainly the result of the public assuming that the military was under the control of the sovereign and, therefore, of no matter to them. Two levels of court were created; the Regimental Court was created to try minor crimes of officers with the rank of Captain or below. It had no legal jurisdiction. The higher level of court was the General Court, advised by a Judge Advocate (generally a professional lawyer from the civilian community) which gave it a great deal of additional power and a bigger remit.
In 1689, the military courts were legally accepted by Parliament for the first time. This was the Mutiny Act, and most of the military were unsatisfied with this. They preferred the informal aspect, convenience and the definitive nature of the military court system. Many in the military felt their court system fitted their objectives perfectly. It wasn’t until 1805 that there were any written records of court cases, nor were any oaths made. It was common for sentences to be enforced instantly and the whole court system was remarkably proficient for its time. It did, although, not have the accountability that the modern Court Marshall has, with the court progressively becoming more accountable and more authoritative following the Mutiny Acts between 1689 and 1878, as well as the Army Act of 1881. The Army Act is legislation that continuously renews every year, and has been doing so since 1881. It still creates, in modern times, a large part of the Courts Marshal procedure.
The world was at war by 1914, and the military court could not deal with it’s new-found demand. This was in part due to it being split into four distinctive types of court martial. Each had its own distinctive legal guidelines and limitations. The basis of the modern Court Marshall, was formed in 1920, after reforms and the abolition of the Regimental Court. Until 1951, the decision of the court was full and final. After 1951 appeals in military courts could be lodged. However it wasn’t until as recent as 1996 when appeals could be granted against any sentence (the Armed Forces Act of 1996). Before this, soldiers were only able to appeal on a point of law.
A report produced by an interdepartmental committee in 1925 declared that capital punishment should be eradicated for some crimes. This, however, was narrowly rejected by a parliamentary vote. In 1928 the death penalty was abolished for striking superior officers, disobedience, sleeping while on post, and 5 other offences, of most note cowardice and desertion. Cowardice and desertion had been the two most conspicuous offences resulting in many executions at the time of World War I. It wasn’t until the 1940 Treachery Act that mutiny lost it’s sentence of capital punishment, as did civilian crimes. The death penalty in the UK was entirely abolished under the 1998 Human Rights Act, and nowadays there is no crime which can conclude in capital punishment, whether you are civilian or in the military.