Training to be a barrister in the Royal Marines – Rhys Hopkins

Lt Kaffee: ‘Did you order the Code Red?’
Col. Jessop: ‘You’re Goddamned right I did!’

One year before commencing the GDL at City, I was working in Baghdad as a Royal Marine Captain. I was based at an Iraqi Military Training base, 15 minutes by helicopter outside the so-called ‘heavily fortified Green Zone’. Here I was part of a small group of Brits that lived with and trained Iraqi Young Officers in the new Iraqi Army. Cadets at the academy routinely disappeared; rocket attacks and mortar bombs landed in our compound with daily regularity; members of the staff were killed by them; perhaps most alarmingly the Iraqi general in charge of the base was lynched whilst travelling to work.

Our trips to the ranges were fraught with anxiety at the ever present menace of the road side bomb. Helicopter trips into the Green Zone resembled a fair ground ride as the pilots did their best to avoid being hit – or being locked on by a missile – as the night sky around us was lit up by flares fired as decoys from the helicopter.

All of this, however pales into insignificance when compared to the feelings of discomfort and unease that I experienced as Dr Herling icily exposed the limitations of our knowledge of contract law in the early tutorials of the course!So how did I end up in Northampton square, dressed in ripped jeans and with hair that is slightly too long, masquerading as a student attempting (but failing) to keep in touch with fashion, when I should really have been wearing boots and camouflage like all my serving colleagues in the Marines?

Allow me to attempt to explain. The military has its own legal system. Alongside all of the laws that most of us would recognise from the Magistrates’ or Crown Court, there are also laws that no civilian would dream could possibly be enforceable in ‘normal life’. If you grow your sideburns more than halfway down your ear, you are committing an offence. If you are female, and your hair is not tightly tied up you are committing an offence. If you are late, you have not transgressed protocol or even etiquette, you have broken the law. So, where there are laws, even unusual ones, there are lawyers.

Whilst proudly a Royal Marine, I sit under the umbrella of the Royal Navy. The Navy obtain their lawyers differently from the Army or the RAF. The Navy select officers, usually with around 5 years of general service under their belts. They then take these lucky few out of uniform and place them back into the student world they left just before joining and commencing basic military training, to do the GDL and the BVC. Naval barristers then undertake 1st & 2nd six pupillage at a top criminal set. Thus after three years of being a ‘civvy’ and secretly growing your side burns, and maybe even being late occasionally, the trained naval barrister returns to uniform and – as is alluded to in the film ‘A Few Good Men’ – prosecutes and defends members of the armed forces who think that we ‘can’t handle the truth’.

So I will, come September 2011, have to dust off my boots, try and squeeze back into my combats, stick my green beret back on my freshly shorn head and return to the world of uniform. Thereafter the life of a service lawyer is a varied one. Courts Martial are of course our bread and butter. But there are a wide variety of other legal posts. Every major operational theatre requires military lawyers, usually giving direct advice to the senior general running the campaign. Operational and tactical decisions often have legal ramifications that can – and do – end up splashed across the paper; sometimes under tragic circumstances.

When abroad the legal focus overlaps between criminal law, law of armed conflict and public / administrative law. All of these can shape a commander’s tactical decisions on the ground. But the Navy legal service also covers employment law, liability of public authorities and the drafting of Acts of Parliament.

An example of a topical issue today is the legality of preventing acts of piracy – particularly those off the horn of Africa. The operational take-down of a pirate vessel is one thing, but this also presents tricky questions of in whose jurisdiction any such pirates can be tried, and just as importantly, whose gaol will they end up in – if anyone’s at all.

Finally, just to make sure we do not become too blinded by the law and forget our military roots, Navy Barristers are sent back to their representative mainstream organizations – be it Naval ships, or Royal Marine Commandos – every few years to serve in the front line. This hopefully alleviates the frustrations that some practitioners of the military art have with some practitioners of the legal one. By so doing we try to avoid senior military officers passing comments like Colonel Jessop (the US Marine Colonel) did to Lt Kaffee (the Judge Advocate General Lieutenant) in the well known scene at the end of the film.

“And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post.”

Rhys Hopkins completed his GDL at the City Law School in June 2009 and is now doing his BVC at BPP. Rhys will be going to a criminal set for his first and second six, followed by a third six at the Joint Services Courts Martial Centre in Northholt (on a par with the Crown Court).

  1. Dear Sirs

    I am looking for confirmation that a Brian Goudie was a Royal Marine officer holding the rank of Captain? Also, please can you advise if this individual undertook and completed law degree(s) during his term with the Royal Marines? Thank you for your kind help in this matter.

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