A Courts-Martial Appeal Court was established under the Courts Martial (Appeals) Act 1951 for the purpose of hearing, with the leave of the court itself, appeals against conviction from naval, army and air force courts-martial. However there remained in force the previous limitations on the powers of courts martial, in particular the right of an aggrieved serviceman to petition the confirming authority, and the requirement that no finding, other than acquittal, and no sentence, should become effective unless confirmed by the commanding officer.
The decision to set up such a court was based largely on the reports of the Army and Air Force Courts-Martial Committee 1946 and the Committee appointed in 1949 to consider the Administration of Justice under the Naval Discipline Act.
The new act provided that the Judge Advocate of the Fleet or the Judge Advocate General could refer any finding of a court-martial involving a point of law of exceptional importance to the court for determination. Power was also given to the secretary of state or the Admiralty, upon consideration of matters which had not been brought to the notice of the court martial at the trial, to refer the findings of the court martial for consideration or reconsideration by the court. In considering whether or not to give leave to appeal the court was to have regard to any expression of opinion made by the judge advocate of the Fleet or the Judge Advocate General that the case was a fit one for appeal.
A right of appeal was exercisable only provided a person convicted had presented to the appropriate authority, within a prescribed period, a petition praying that his conviction be quashed and that this had not been granted or determined within a specified time. Under the 1951 act the appropriate authority was the secretary of state or the Admiralty but this was changed by the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act 1968 to the Defence Council. This latter act also made provision for the right to appeal to be retained where there was a reasonable explanation for a person's failure to present a petition within the time prescribed and it was in the interests of justice that he should be treated as not having thereby lost his right of appeal.
For the purpose of hearing and determining appeals the court is summoned by the Lord Chief Justice with the consent of the Lord Chancellor, and may sit in such place as directed by the Lord Chief Justice, whether within or outside the United Kingdom. If at any time the Lord Chief Justice is unable to act, or if that office is vacant, the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act 1968 enables these and certain other powers to be exercised instead by the Master of the Rolls. Under the 1968 act the judges of the court are:-
- a) the ex officio and ordinary judges of the Court of Appeal and such judges of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court as the Lord Chief Justice may, after consultation with the Master of the Rolls, nominate
- b) such of the Lords commissioners of Justiciary as the Lord Justice General may nominate
- c) such judges of the Supreme Court of Judicature of Northern Ireland as the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland may nominate.
The Lord Chancellor also has powers to appoint other persons, being persons of legal experience, as judges of the court although, in stipulating that the court should consist of an uneven number of judges (not less than three) the act provides that, when sitting in the United Kingdom, at least one judge must be appointed other than under this provision relating to persons of legal experience.
Under the Courts-Martial (Appeals) Act 1951 a further appeal lay to the House of Lords if the attorney general certified that the court's decision involved a point of law of exceptional public importance. The Administration of Justice Act 1960 changed this by providing for such an appeal, subject to the certificate of the Courts-Martial Appeal Court that a point of law of general public importance was involved and that it appeared to the court, or to the House of Lords, that it ought to be considered by that House.
The registrar of the court is also master of the Crown Office of the Supreme Court of Judicature and registrar of the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division). The work of the court is dealt with by a Courts Martial Appeal Office and is in fact carried out by staff of the Criminal Appeal Office of the Central Office of the Supreme Court.