EuroCourt Nixes "Gross Indecency"
August 1, 2000
SUMMARY: Oscar Wildes spirit is smiling in satisfaction as a
gay man charged under the same law that imprisoned him is awarded over 30,000-pounds.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled unanimously July 31 that Britains
gay-only "gross indecency" law violates Europes guarantee of "respect
for a private family life" and awarded plaintiff "ADT" 20,929-pounds
damages plus 12,391-pounds court costs. The gross indecency charge famous for
imprisoning Oscar Wilde criminalizes sex between consenting adult males if any
third party is present. ADT, 52, was arrested, convicted and given a conditional two-year
suspended sentence in 1996 for a gay group sex gathering in his own home in Yorkshire four
years ago after police obtained a videotape of the party, which had never been intended
for circulation. Repeal of the gross indecency statute was already a part of a package of
major sex crimes law reform published by Britains Labour Government last week.
The seven-judge ECHR panel agreed that the law violated Article 8 of the European
Convention on Human Rights, and ruled that, "The activities in the case were purely
and genuinely private." Having done so it did not consider ADTs further
argument that the law constitutes illegal discrimination on the basis of gender since it
applies only to males, nor did it consider any issue of anti-gay discrimination per se.
"Respect for private family life" had also been the ECHR basis last year for
rejecting Britains ban on military service by gays and lesbians.
A spokesperson for the British Home Office said, "We will be studying the judgment
carefully. In our observations to the court, the UK Government made it clear that this
area of the law is already under review as part of the Review of Sexual Offences and
Penalties which was published Wednesday [July 26]." The review panel which developed
the recommendations for sex crimes reforms wrote that, "The review can find no
justification for retaining an offence that deals solely with same-sex behavior between
consenting adults in private."
Angela Mason, OBE, executive director of the national gay and lesbian advocacy group
Stonewall, said the ruling "This judgment drives a coach and horses through the gross
indecency laws. It vindicates the view of the Sexual Offences Review that this legislation
violates the right to privacy set out in the European Convention on Human Rights. It makes
the new proposal to introduce an even-handed public sex offense more pressing. I believe
the government will now have to issue a directive to police officers telling them not to
continue prosecutions under this offense." Last year 354 reports of gross indecency
were filed in England and Wales.
Peter Tatchell, spokesperson for the direct action group OutRage!, said, "This
ruling spells the end of the gross indecency law which was used to convict Oscar Wilde in
1895. Its astonishing that it survived so long, but this decision means the
government will have to repeal it. It is another historic victory on the road to gay
equality. It makes the remaining areas of discrimination in sexual offences law
unsustainable. But is a great shame that legal change has to be imposed via the
European Court rather than the free will of a Parliament that respects the rights of its
Anti-gay campaigner Dr. Adrian Rogers declared that Europe is "bringing down the
social fabric of our society. They are giving a status to a form of activity which is less
than desirable, medically hazardous and which really stands in opposition to the
alternative, which is heterosexual family life. One wonders whether anything is going to
remain illegal in Europe."
Some believe the ruling will burden the ruling Labour Party when its hoping to
appear more pro-family as next years elections approach. Their Conservative
Opposition is expected to run a moralistic "family values" campaign.