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A court-martial (plural courts-martial, as "martial" is postpositive) is a military court. A court-martial is empowered to determine the guilt of members of the armed forces subject to military law, and, if the defendant is found guilty, to decide upon punishment.

Most militaries maintain a court-martial system to try cases in which a breach of military discipline may have occurred. Some countries, however, have no court-martial in time of peace; this is the case in France and Germany, for example, where ordinary, civilian courts are used instead.[1]

In addition, courts-martial may be used to try prisoners of war for war crimes. The Geneva Convention requires that POWs who are on trial for war crimes be subject to the same procedures as would be the holding army's own soldiers.

Most navies have a standard court-martial which convenes whenever a ship is lost; this does not necessarily mean that the captain is suspected of wrongdoing, but merely that the circumstances surrounding the loss of the ship would be made part of the official record. Many ship captains will actually insist on a court-martial in such circumstances.



Usually, a court-martial takes the form of a trial with a presiding judge, a prosecutor and defensive counsel (all trained lawyers as well as officers) and (in some cases) a panel of officers (and sometimes enlisted personnel) acting as jury. The precise format varies from one country to another and may also depend on the severity of the accusation.


Courts martial have the authority to try a wide range of military offences, many of which closely resemble civilian crimes like fraud, theft or perjury. Others, like cowardice, desertion, and insubordination, are purely military crimes. Punishments for military offences range from fines and imprisonment to execution (in nations that retain the death penalty). Military offences are defined in the Army Act, Royal Air Force Act and Royal Navy Act for members of the British Military. Regulations for the Canadian Forces are found in the Queen's Regulations and Orders. For members of the United States armed forces offenses are covered under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). These offences, their corresponding punishments and instructions on how to conduct a court-martial, are explained in detail based on each country and/or service.

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