Australia’s defence department is unwilling to disclose the names of defence officers charged with criminal offences, in part because of the high rates of mental health issues suffered by military personnel, internal emails reveal.
Documents obtained under Australia's freedom of information law and reported by BuzzFeed News revealed that since September 2014 the Directorate of Military Prosecution has brought charges against 152 defence personnel across Australia’s army, navy and air force.
But while in an ordinary Australian court the names of the alleged offenders would generally be publicly accessible, the defence department's registrar of military justice, group captain Nina Harvey, has sought to suppress the identities of all defence personnel who have had charges brought against them.
Following the BuzzFeed News story the department announced it was reviewing this procedure.
BuzzFeed News subsequently sought access to correspondence that related to the review under freedom of information laws. The defence department then disclosed an email written by Harvey that said one of the most significant factors in not revealing names was the high rate of mental health issues.
“There are significant personal welfare considerations that need to be taken into consideration,” Harvey wrote. “These intersect with additional obligations with respect to veterans and persons with mental illness (including post traumatic stress disorder), particularly where these are service related.”
She wrote that a “significant portion of persons on trial suffer from mental illness (such as post traumatic stress disorder) related to their service and, further, this has been a significant factor in the proceedings”.
Harvey’s email had been initially sent to a number of defence legal officers. She also distributed it to some of the most senior officers in the defence judicial system, including brigadier Michael Cowen, commander David Swanson, lieutenant commander Patience Neal and justice Michael Slattery.
She also wrote that research was being conducted into overseas military disciplinary proceedings to determine what information was published about charges and prosecutions of defence personnel. This would likely include countries with similar defence force cultures such as the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Canada.
The defence department has been criticised in the past for stigmatising mental health issues within the military. A landmark review by the National Mental Health Commission released in March 2017 found that the agency needed to change how it responded to serious mental health issues in the armed forces.
There are few details available about the nature of the defence department’s review into the publication of details about officers prosecuted for military offences. The documents released to BuzzFeed News provide no indication about a timeline, and show that there is no formal terms of reference.
The defence department’s decision to withhold the information is also currently under review by the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.