In this month's in-house interview, a Captain in the Army Legal Services tells of her life as part of the Armed Forces, and what those joining ALS can expect

Can you give us a sense of the role of a lawyer within ALS? And what it may involve on any given day?

Captain Matthews in uniformAs with most areas of society, the law pervades the Army’s operations, which engage a myriad legal issues on a daily, indeed hourly basis – whether that be employment and management of soldiers or conduct of military operations. There really is no such thing as a typical day: there are a number of different areas of employment each with different demands at different ranks. Every ALS officer is expected during their career to practise across three functional areas: prosecutions, advisory and operational law. Officers are assigned to posts, for two years at a time, and can move regularly and to gain wide experience. Whatever the role, we aim to provide first-class legal advice in support of the Army in barracks and on operations.

In terms of prosecutions, the Service Prosecuting Authority (SPA) is similar in function to the Crown Prosecution Service in England. It is responsible for prosecuting Service and criminal offences before the Service courts, which include, the Court Martial, the Court Martial Appeal Court, the Service Civilian Court and the Summary Appeal Court. These courts hear prosecutions of persons subject to Service law and civilians subject to Service discipline only; any issues involving concurrent jurisdiction between the Army and UK civilian authorities will normally be determined by consultation between the parties in accordance with the relevant rules.

Cases are referred to the SPA either by a suspect’s commanding officer or the Service Police. Each case is considered by an ALS officer who will be responsible for deciding whether to direct for trial, appropriate charges, and preparing and presenting the case in the Service court.

ALS officers advocate in the Service courts regardless of whether they are solicitors, barristers or advocates. Lawyers qualified in Scotland are able to prosecute in the Service courts and do not need to retrain for England & Wales. ALS has many Scottish lawyers!

In the advisory branch, ALS officers advise the chain of command on a range of issues including Army policy, operational, criminal and Service law. Duties range from providing guidance, to training commanders and soldiers in all aspects of Service discipline. As for operational law, wherever in the world the Army goes, an ALS officer will likely go with them. They could be advising commanders on operational law before decisions are made, training troops on the ground on the law of armed conflict, or even overseeing captured persons and advising on human rights.

Given the potential breadth of activity even within the business area to which one may be assigned, what external advice and interaction do you have?

In addition to uniformed lawyers, there are civilian MOD lawyers with whom we work closely. In addition, we enjoy excellent working relationships with other Government departments and agencies such as the Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), Security Services and their legal teams, and with other armies around the world. There are opportunities to gain experience in these areas, including exchange programmes with other armed forces. For example, a few of my colleagues have had the chance to be part of the legal team in the Australian Army for 12 months.

What training and support is given to potential ALS officers?

Every person recruited will commission as an ALS officer at the rank of Captain on a short service commission (currently 12 years with a three year probation period). They will be supported from the date they make their application by Capita and then begin their training and development from the date they commission.

Each ALS officer spends nine months training before going into their first legal role. During their first two weeks, they conduct initial training and administration at the Directorate of Army Legal Services. They then attend the Professionally Qualified Officers’ course at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst for nine weeks, where they learn basic military skills including weapons handling, study infantry tactics and take on a range of tasks designed to develop their ability to lead and command. They then undertake six weeks’ legal training at the Directorate of Army Legal Services, including one week at Warminster on operational law and one week’s adventure training (usually skiing, hiking or rock climbing).

On completion of their legal training, they spend three months on attachment, usually with a combat arm unit such as an infantry battalion. This is designed to give them first hand experience of life as an Army officer and an understanding of the military ethos and function of an Army unit. Previous attachments have been in Brunei, Cyprus, Germany and the Falklands.

In addition to their initial training, ALS officers receive on the job training at their respective postings and are required to attend progressive courses. For example, there are operational law courses conducted at UK universities and in Italy, Germany and the US. There is also opportunity to undertake a part-time funded LLM, and obtain Higher Rights of Advocacy (Criminal) with various providers.

Does an ALS recruit have to do physical training, and is this like any other specialist within the Army?

Yes. ALS officers are expected to maintain a minimum level of fitness. Fitness is assessed bi-annually. The assessment includes a medicine ball throw, a 100m shuttle sprint, a deadlift, pull-ups and a 2km timed run. The Army encourages its people to exercise, and almost every unit offers free gym access and gym classes, so the fitness assessment is absolutely passable.

Would you ever be expected to go to the front line or an active war zone?

Yes, as part of our operational role an ALS officer may find themselves advising in a war zone or other dangerous area of the world (see point above about advising on the ground as regards law of armed conflict and international human rights law). For example, my colleague Major Amelia Morrissey was recently deployed on a UN led mission in Mali as the Army’s legal adviser in the operational sphere.

Within ALS, what is the structure as regards progression? Are there opportunities to do secondments in different areas to those to which you have been assigned?

There is a hierarchical structure ranging from Captain (entry level for ALS officers) to Major General (highest rank held by our Director), with promotion based on a combination of time served in ALS and performance. Most Captains will promote to Major after five or six years in ALS.

Secondments are very much subject to the needs of the Service. I have been seconded twice in support of the Ministry of Defence’s domestic response (Op RESCRIPT – four months) and international response (Op BROADSHARE – two months) to COVID-19, which gave me an insight into the workings of the Department of Health & Social Care and Ministry of Defence Main Building respectively.

What do you enjoy most about your job? And least?

I enjoy the variety and the opportunities for travel and self-development. I found my job as a civilian solicitor quite monotonous, and wanted a career that could offer me variety and excitement. You tend to be pigeonholed in civvy street with the expectation that you will focus on one area of law. In ALS, you can practise in the three functional areas and that has always kept me interested and motivated.

ALS invest in your professional development from the outset and train you so you can provide competent legal advice in each of these areas.

I also enjoy the financial and other benefits of being an Army officer, and the opportunity to participate in adventure training and sports as part of my job without affecting my leave allowance of 38 days. The starting salary of a first year Captain is £42,850 with incremental increases thereafter. In addition, there is a non-contributory pension, medical, dental and health benefits, and heavily subsidised accommodation with little or no commute. At present I am living in central London for a very reasonable cost. Other locations you could be posted as a Captain include York, and various locations in the South East and London.

The thing I enjoy least is that it is difficult to plan ahead, because ALS must always be adaptable to events in the UK and overseas and ultimately the needs of the Service.

What are the wider themes the Army is grappling with at the moment which will likely impact on your work?

The Army is continually reacting to the circumstances of the day, and its legal team need to keep pace with these. We are currently focused on the Integrated Review and Future Soldier Implementation, and how best to ensure delivery of legal advice to the future Army as it is optimised to counter the increasingly wide range of threats to the UK, its people and its interests. We need to be able to advise on activity below the threshold of armed conflict, use of artificial intelligence and cyber activity. We are engaged in matters such as conduct and behaviour at home and overseas, claims against the MOD, and the Army response to the recent inquiry in relation to Women in Service to ensure that the Army is a truly inclusive employer.

What five words would you use to describe yesterday for you?

Interesting. Varied. Worthwhile. Challenging. Energetic.

What advice would you give that you wish you had known when you were starting out?

Be patient, and do more exercise! I practised private client and civil litigation as a civilian practitioner and of course it takes time to retrain and learn a new area of law, but ALS are on hand to support you in that. As to exercise, the fitter you are when you commission, the easier you will find the physical aspects of the Professionally Qualified Course at Sandhurst, so I thoroughly recommend getting as fit as you can.

Any last thoughts for those contemplating this career?

The juice is definitely worth the squeeze. It’s the only role I’ve ever had that develops you as a person, not just a professional, and there are so many opportunities that aren’t available as a civilian within and outside the legal space. In the words of Tony Robbins, “Why live an ordinary life, when you can live an extraordinary one?”

Questions put and text reviewed by Catherine Corr, In-house Lawyers' Committee

Who can apply?

A specialist all-officer branch of the Army’s Adjutant General’s Corps (AGC), the ALS is comprised of professionally qualified solicitors, barristers and advocates and runs three recruitment cycles a year (January, May, and September).

Candidates can still apply if they are a trainee solicitor or pupil barrister/advocate, but will need to be fully qualified at the point of intake. All legal backgrounds are welcome. ALS will provide bespoke legal training to all new officers. The upper age limit is generally 32, but this can be waived in exceptional circumstances, e.g. previous military experience or transferable legal experience in areas such as criminal, employment or international humanitarian law.

For those who meet ALS’s criteria and are interested in applying as part of the next intake, you can forward a copy of your CV and a covering letter to before 28 January 2022. The next CV deadline after this is 27 May 2022.

The Author

Captain Kirsty Matthews, Army Legal Services

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