Series 1.1: Summary Trial vs. General Court Martial
In the military justice system of the SAF, there are two main avenues by which charges may be disposed: the summary trial and the General Court Martial (GCM). Although they hold similar functions, they differ in terms of powers and formality, and this necessarily has implications for servicemen. This short article will briefly examine the key differences between the summary trial and the GCM.
A summary trial is conducted by the serviceman’s unit, and allows SAF commanders to deal speedily with relatively minor breaches of discipline. Most of the time, servicemen are charged in a summary trial—in practice, this means that the serviceman will report to the Officer Commanding (OC)’s office, where he will be informed of the charge and the punishment being meted out. The serviceman may then choose to accept the punishment, or to elect for a GCM or to be tried by another Disciplinary Officer.
The GCM, on the other hand, is a far more formal affair and is therefore usually convened to deal with more serious offences. GCMs are held at the SAF Court Martial Centre at Kranji Camp II. A judge, or a panel of judges and senior officers will preside over proceedings, and a military lawyer will bring the charge against the serviceman. If the serviceman is dissatisfied with the outcome of a case, he may apply for leave to appeal to the Military Court of Appeal (MCA).
Although the most immediately apparent difference is in the level of formality, the commonality between the two is that the serviceman is always given the right for a fair hearing where he is given the chance to explain his side of the matter before the presiding authority decides if he is guilty of the alleged charge.
Summary trials typically deal with relatively minor offences , and as such, informal punishment such as Stoppage of Leave (SOL) or extra duties will usually be ordered. In relation to aggravated offences, the Senior Disciplinary Officer may also sentence a serviceman to serve detention in the Detention Barracks for a period not exceeding 40 days per charge .
In contrast, the GCM is more formalized, and the court has the power to mete out heavier punishments such as fines, detention, reduction in rank and dismissal. In addition, the serviceman might suffer any punishment that may be awarded by a civil court for a civil offence .
Under a summary trial, an external lawyer cannot represent the serviceman. However, the serviceman nonetheless may present his side of the story to the presiding authority be it the OC or Commanding Officer (CO) of the Battalion.
In a GCM, the Unit’s S1 Branch will appoint a Defending Officer. The Defending Officer will usually be one of the officers in the same unit as the serviceman who would be able to represent the serviceman best as he will be in-charge of the serviceman’s defence or mitigation. However, the serviceman may instead choose to engage a civilian lawyer at his own cost to represent him.
The differences between summary trial and the GCM mean that servicemen should carefully consider before electing for trial by General Court Martial. The next articles in the series will focus on the rights of servicemen, as well as the decision to plead guilty or not guilty.
 “Protecting the Rights of a Serviceman During a Summary Trial” MINDEF Legal Counsel, July 2004, p 10.
 “Sentencing Options in the Courts Martial” MINDEF Legal Counsel, March 2001, p 5.