Last edited: February 14, 2005

EuroCourt Nixes "Gross Indecency"

PlanetOut, August 1, 2000

SUMMARY: Oscar Wilde’s 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 Britain’s gay-only "gross indecency" law violates Europe’s 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 Britain’s 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 ADT’s 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 Britain’s 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. It’s 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 i’s 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 gay citizens."

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 it’s hoping to appear more pro-family as next year’s elections approach. Their Conservative Opposition is expected to run a moralistic "family values" campaign.

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