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Conscientious Objection

The Tribunals
Tribunal Decisions
Public Opinion
The Tribunals
The Military Training Act of May 1939 was the first of several pieces of legislation concerning conscription for military service introduced in Britain during WW2. Like its predecessor in 1916, this legislation included a ‘conscience clause’ and set up a system whereby those who felt their consciences prevented them from taking up arms were required to register their objection to military service. Once registered, those objectors seeking exemption from military service would have their cases determined by a Tribunal, as had been the case during WW1.

Unlike the WW1 Tribunals which were administered by the War Office, the process was overseen by the Ministry of Labour. This greatly reduced the hostility and adversarial nature of these proceedings. Eight regional Tribunals operated throughout Great Britain and a ninth in Northern Ireland, each chaired by a County Court Judge and each including a trade unionist.

The Tribunals varied in their interpretation of the legislation, their attitudes to applicants and their decision-making but all were closely scrutinised by the Central Board of Conscientious Objectors (a voluntary body) and a small group of MPs several of whom had themselves been objectors in WW1. This scrutiny and the pragmatism of the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, resulted in a number of adjustments being made to the implementation of the legislation and in general proceedings were conducted with fairness.

Despite some injustices in the treatment of conscientious objectors in Britain during WW2 it should be noted that Britain went further than most countries engaged in the war in providing legal recognition of objectors.