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Military Defense Counsel


The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent advice of a licensed attorney and military defense counsel. Service members seeking legal advice about a potential adverse action should consult the staff of the nearest installation office of military defense counsel.

If you are facing discharge or criminal prosecution by the military (court-martial), you can seek assistance from military defense counsel, certified judge advocates who provide independent legal rep¬resentation and confidential legal advice for service members suspected of an offense or facing adverse administrative actions.

Your right to counsel

An independent military defense counsel is provided at no cost regardless of your ability to pay. You may also employ civilian counsel at your own expense or request a particular military counsel who will assist you if reasonably available. You have the right to be represented by counsel at the magistrate hearing when a determination is made regarding continued pretrial confinement, at the Article 32 investigation and during all court-martial sessions. After trial, you have a right to military counsel at no cost to assist you through the military appellate courts and potentially to the US Supreme Court.

Military defense counsel operate outside of your chain of command, eliminating any appearance of possible command influence or conflicts of interest. Military defense counsel offer complete confidentiality; nothing said to the counsel will be disclosed to anyone else without your permission. The defense counsel is an advocate for the client, not an advisor for the command, and maintains an office that is physically separate from the installation legal office. Each of the branches of service uses different names for the defense counsel offices including:

  • Army: United States Army Trial Defense Service
  • Marine Corps and Navy: The Defense Service Office
  • Air Force: Area Defense Counsel

Defense counsel services

Authorized defense counsel representation can include, but is not limited to, the following areas. 

  • Article 32 pretrial investigations. Article 32 of the UCMJ provides that before charges may be referred to a general court-martial, the charges must be subjected to a pretrial investigation.
  • Pretrial confinement hearings. Pretrial confinement hearings review whether the military has sufficient cause to believe that you committed an offense under the code and whether your continued confinement is necessary.
  • Article 15 non-judicial punishment. Non-judicial punishment refers to limited punishments that your commander can levy for minor disciplinary offenses. The Navy and Coast Guard refer to non-judicial punishment proceedings as "captain's mast or mast;" the Marine Corps refers to the process as "office hours" and the Army and Air Force refer to these proceedings as "Article 15."
  • Investigations. Military defense counsel can provide advice if you are the subject of or may be the subject of an investigation including accident, safety, criminal and line of duty investigations.
  • Administrative separation proceedings. If your commander has initiated a separation action against you to pursue involuntary discharge proceedings, you can consult with the military defense counsel for legal advice and potential representation, if you are eligible for a separation board hearing.
  • Administrative demotion of enlisted service members/officer grade determinations. A demotion or officer grade determination is an administrative decision to determine appropriate retirement grade, retirement pay or other separation pay. Although a lower grade determination may affect an individual adversely, it is not punitive.
  • Letters of reprimand, unfavorable information files and related matters. In lieu of non-judicial punishment, your commander may consider administrative actions such as admonition, reprimand, criticism, censure, reproach and/or rebuke.
  • Boards of officers, faculty boards, flying evaluation boards and medical officer decredentialing boards. If your performance in a rated duty comes into question, a board may be convened. These boards are administrative, fact-finding proceedings conducted to ensure information relevant to your qualification is reviewed and discussed in a fair and impartial manner.
  • Denial/revocation of security clearance. Defense counsels can provide assistance at your appeals hearing if you have been denied a security clearance or had your clearance revoked.
  • Summary court-martial. Trial by summary court-martial provides a simplified procedure for resolving charges involving minor incidents of misconduct. The summary court-martial consists of one officer who, depending upon service policies and practice is normally a judge advocate (a military attorney). You are not entitled to be represented by a military attorney but you may hire a civilian lawyer at your own expense. In rare cases, military exigencies preclude the reasonable availability of civilian counsel. As a matter of Air Force policy, all accused at summary courts-martial are afforded representation by military counsel. You must consent to trial at a summary court-martial and may object to trial by summary court-martial, in which case the convening authority determines further action. The maximum punishment a summary court-martial may award is confinement for 30 days, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month and reduction to the lowest pay grade (E-1).
  • Special court-martial. A special court-martial is the intermediate court level. It consists of a military judge, trial counsel, defense counsel, and a minimum of three officers sitting as a panel of court members or jury. An enlisted accused may request a court composed of at least one-third enlisted personnel. You may request trial by judge alone. Regardless of the offenses involved, a special court-martial sentence is limited to no more than one year confinement (or a lesser amount if the offenses have a lower maximum),forfeiture of two-third's basic pay per month for one year, a bad-conduct discharge (for enlisted personnel) and certain lesser punishments. An officer accused in a special court-martial cannot be dismissed from the service or confined.
  • General court-martial. A general court-martial is the most serious level of military courts. It consists of a military judge, trial counsel, defense counsel and at least five court members. An enlisted accused may request a court composed of at least one-third enlisted personnel. Unless the case is one in which the death sentence could be adjudged, you may request trial by judge alone. The maximum punishment is that established for each offense under the Manual for Courts-Martial and may include death (for certain offenses), confinement, a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge for enlisted personnel, a dismissal for officers or a number of other lesser forms of punishment. A pretrial investigation under Article 32 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice must be conducted before a case may be referred to a general court-martial, unless waived by the accused.

Limitations and restrictions on representation

There are certain areas in which military defense counsel may not be able to provide direct assistance. This may include, but is not limited to, the following topics:

  • Civil Legal Assistance Matters. Military defense counsel are not required to provide legal assistance services. Military defense counsel can coordinate with the nearest Legal Assistance office or make other suitable arrangements on your behalf if you have a legal assistance issue. The nearest legal assistance office can be found through the Armed Forces Legal Assistance Locator.
  • Civilian criminal matters. If you have a non-military criminal case such as driving under the influence, the defense counsel cannot represent you in a civilian court. In such cases, you will need to seek representation from a civilian attorney. Military defense counsel can advise you about the impact of a civilian conviction on your military career and represent you in related military personnel actions.
  • Preparation of Inspector General, Military Equal Opportunity, Congressional Complaints or similar matters. Military defense counsel should not assist a member in preparing these types of complaints.
  • Preparation of applications before service boards for correction of military records or on board for correction of Naval records. Representation is prohibited; however, the client may be advised of basic procedures to correct military records.

How to contact defense counsels

Contact information for your nearest defense counsel can be found in your installation telephone directory as well as posted flyers on the installation. Your installation Trial Defense Service office, Defense Services Office, or Area Defense Counsel office, may have a local website containing helpful information. Please note these defense legal offices are separate and different from your local Legal Assistance office.

The information contained on this website is designed to educate and inform service members and their families on their personal legal affairs. Nothing contained in the website is a substitute for the competent advice of a licensed attorney and military defense counsel. Service members seeking legal advice about a potential adverse action should consult the staff of the nearest installation office of military defense counsel.


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