As law students, many of us have that one legal television show or movie that inspired us to become a future lawyer. For the criminal law enthusiasts, maybe it was an episode of Law and Order that stood out. You would witness the New York City Police chase suspected criminals through dramatic and sometimes horrific investigations, then watch them hand over their work to Manhattan District Attorneys to duke it out in court.
For the future corporate lawyers, maybe it was Harvey Specter’s impeccable looks, stylish office, and fantastic style that makes the corporate lifestyle so attractive. I know I have personally watched my fair share of Suits. For others, maybe it was Elle Woods and her quirky route to becoming a Harvard Law graduate, all while mastering the “bend and snap,” that convinced you this degree was something you should and could pursue.
There is a plethora of legal comedies, dramas, and cinematic portrayals, one that has always stood out to me is A Few Good Men. I can still remember the first time I watched a young Tom Cruise losing his cool in court, trying to force Jack Nicholson to admit that he in fact ordered the “Code Red” that killed a Marine Private. Watching the heated exchange followed by Nicholson’s famous line “you can’t handle the truth,” was so exciting and intense all at the same time. Watching this, I knew that I wanted a career filled with that type of intensity and adrenaline rush.
A Few Good Men may have been the movie that inspired me to become a lawyer, but my career will be strikingly different than that of the young Tom Cruise’s character. In the film, Cruise plays Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee, a United States Navy lawyer tasked with defending two US Marines accused of murdering their fellow Private. In the film, Kaffee’s clients maintain they were just following orders when they violently disciplined the deceased. The entire investigation is run through military law practices, and ends in military court.
In Canada, the military have their own court system separate and unique from the regular criminal justice system. So what would military court be like for Daniel Kaffee here in Canada?
Similar to the United States, Canada has a parallel and separate military court system. Military justice is administered through the Code of Service Discipline, which is found in Part III of the National Defence Act.1 The Code allows the military to enforce disciplinary standards on members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to maintain cohesion within military units.2 The Supreme Court of Canada recognizes the need for the parallel military system to enforce disciplinary standards that are higher than what is expected of civilians.3
Similar to the procedure in A Few Good Men, Canada has a tribunal system for military justice. The military system acknowledges that CAF members, who are subject to military discipline under the Code, must be afforded fair, just, and transparent justice.4 To ensure fairness, military tribunals have two tiers. Summary trials deal with minor offences related to military discipline and unit effectiveness.5 These are dealt with quickly so the member can immediately return to duty.6
For more serious offences, courts martial are administered. Courts martial are similar to civil and criminal courts but they have an independent military judge overseeing the formal process.7 Canada has two forms of court martial, General and Standing. A General Court Martial is similar to a criminal jury trial. This process includes a military judge and five randomly selected CAF members.8 The judge acts as the trier of law, deciding the formal sentence, and the CAF members are the triers of fact determining a verdict.9 This is the type of formal process depicted in A Few Good Men. In contrast, a Standing Court Martial is similar to a judge-alone criminal trial where the military judge wears both hats.10
The military court system is imperative to the CAF’s function. The specialized system allows the military to maintain discipline and integrity needed to carry out the dangerous operations for which they are responsible. Although their formal court processes are similar to the criminal court system, it is necessary that people trained in military operations decide punishment. Civilians cannot accurately judge the discipline and enforcement needed to carry out certain orders and operations.
1 National Defence Act, RSC 1985, c N-5, Part III, ss 66-159.
2 Canada, National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, Canada’s Military Justice System, (Ottawa: National Defence Headquarters, 2014), online:
9 Canada, National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces, Canada’s Court Martial System, (Ottawa: National Defence Headquarters, 2016), online: <www.forces.gc.ca/en/about-reports-pubs-military-law/court-martial-system.page>.