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Life as a RAF Lawyer Keeping it Legal!

qn Ldr Joanne Swainston is a solicitor. Joanne joined the RAF as a Legal Officer in 2005 and has served in England, Germany, and Northern Ireland. She has also deployed on operations to the Middle East and taken part in the military exchange programme with the United States Air Force, working at the Pentagon. Currently working as a Legal Adviser at the Military Aviation Authority in Bristol Joanne agreed to unravel some of the mystique of the branch.

When I was first invited to write an article I wondered why readers of Envoy might be interested in the Directorate of Legal Services (DLS), RAF and collectively what we do. I had cause to ask this because DLS provides legal support to the RAF as an organisation rather than to individual service personnel – however this has not always been the case.

We don’t provide legal advice and assistance to service personnel in respect of personal legal matters; house purchases, will drafting, divorce or other family issues or personal injury claims. What DLS does provide though, is support to the RAF which directly relates to service personnel because we ensure the Service conducts its business (whether routine activity or on specific operations) in a legally sound way, and by so doing, provide legal protection for RAF personnel. Giving them peace of mind so they can carry out their individual duties and roles confident in the knowledge that they are complying with all relevant laws.

We have 42 lawyers, qualified barristers and solicitors with experience working in different areas of law, as lawyers prior to joining the RAF. There are also 12 civilians. Based at 21 locations worldwide, DLS undertakes a very broad range of work, all with one over-arching purpose – to ensure legal compliance in the RAF.

As an example, DLS lawyers provide through- career training to individual service personnel on the Law of Armed Conflict, the law that the UK

34 Envoy Spring 2013

military adhere to when engaged in overseas operations. This through-career training is supplemented by specific training before service personnel deploy on any given operation.

Another aspect of the work is for DLS lawyers to conduct reviews of new weapons and capabilities that might be used on operations to ensure they comply with the Law of Armed Conflict and that their use is legal. We also provide legal advice in the planning process for any operation; participate in exercises that prepare personnel for operations and deploy with the Air Component Commander to advise on any legal aspects of the deploying force’s activities, particularly the legality of any targeting operations.

There is also a significant part to play for DLS lawyers in the Service Justice System, advising policy-makers, service police conducting investigations and Commanding Officers deciding whether or not to take disciplinary action. They act as prosecutors at the Service Prosecuting Authority (comprised of uniformed lawyers from all three Services) who prosecute at Courts Martial.

We are not, however, able to defend RAF personnel in disciplinary proceedings or assist them in interviews under caution with the service police, albeit this is a role which RAF lawyers do conduct for Army personnel who, of course, are outside RAF full command. This is not because of any policy decision on the

part of the RAF, or unwillingness on the part of its lawyers, but rather in order to fulfil the requirement under European Human Rights law for our Service Justice System to be independent and impartial. Our role is instrumental in ensuring the Service Justice System operates swiftly, justly and fairly which is clearly in the interests of all Service personnel.

A relatively new area of work for DLS is in supporting the delivery of aviation safety and risk management, from advising Station Commanders in their Aviation Duty Holder role to acting as in-house counsel to the Military Aviation Authority, where I am currently working. The Military Aviation Authority is the independent regulatory authority responsible for regulating all aspects of Air Safety across Defence and ensures the safe design, maintenance and use of military air systems.

DLS is a very small organisation relative to the size of the RAF and in its 65th year, activities are more diverse than ever before. Whether it is through deployed lawyers providing advice to military commanders on operations overseas, or through lawyers supporting RAF units at home by answering questions about employment issues, health and safety law, service complaints, environmental law and military air law, DLS (RAF) plays an important role by keeping us all ‘legal’; both corporately and individually. To my mind a good thing indeed and a job worth doing that has certainly kept me busy! 

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