Five Major Differences in Military vs. Civilian Law

By | January 18, 2012

When discussing law, most people are referring to civilian law. But there’s another type of law present in our society: military law. In military law, what applies in certain situations might not apply in others, especially if the differences trace back to the military or civilian status of the person in question. In short, there are stark differences between being a member of the military and being a civilian, and one of the most glaring dissimilarities is the justice system you face.

If we’re going to understand those differences, however, it’s important to point them out explicitly. So here are five major differences in military and civilian law that you might not have been aware of before.

1. The Code.

It all starts at the beginning, and what separates military law from civilian law in most cases is the code that governs each justice system. Yes, both justice systems are part of a national government, but it’s the code of conduct for military officers and soldiers that separates its laws and punishments from the way civilians are treated.

In some respects, the code for military law will generally include less “rights” for military officers faced with charges, but that is only because a person signing up for military service agrees to comply with the military justice code. Otherwise, a military officer would enjoy the other rights civilians would.

2. The Court-Martial.

Civil litigation is in stark contrast to the military’s way of handling specific cases, the court-martial. Essentially, the court-martial refers to a military court. In some respects, this is similar to any other court, and in others, it’s quite different. For one, a court-martial generally tackles the most serious issues, while civilian courts can handle a wide variety of complaints and broken laws.

A soldier facing a court-martial will have avenues to appeal to after a verdict has been reached, however.

3. Judge Advocate General, or JAG Corps.

Law is not handled by civilian lawyers in the military justice system, but instead is often handled by Judge Advocates, themselves members of the military. These advisors do not exist in the civilian justice system, with legal advice being handled by both public and private attorneys. In essence, all Judge Advocate positions are filled by public legal advisors.

4. Appeals.

While both systems of justice have space for appeals, the military appeals process will go up an entirely different chain of command. Civilian appeals will go through appeals courts and all the way up to circuit and federal courts, for example. Military appeals are handled by individual branches of the military and their specific appeals courts – for example, the Army has a Court of Criminal Appeals.

5. Specialized Training for Military Attorneys.

Military attorneys have to be legal attorneys, of course, but they then go through special training in order to be well-suited for handling the military code. This Judge Advocate training can allow them to defend “clients” in court-martials, acting much as civilian attorneys do but in a different capacity and for a different code of justice.

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