A panel of seven judges sitting in Strasbourg ruled unanimously that action against the four was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights by violating their right to privacy. Compensation will be decided at a later date.
Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, the Secretary of State for Defence, immediately accepted the ruling and announced that any other cases still outstanding would be put on hold. Consultation with service chiefs would be taken with a view to implementing the ruling, and the issue would be examined "swiftly and thoroughly", he said.
The four - Duncan Lustig-Prean, a former Royal Navy Lieutenant Commander; Graeme Grady, a former RAF Sergeant; Jeanette Smith, a former RAF nurse and John Beckett, a former naval rating - had failed in all appeals through the British courts.
Mr Grady, who was in Strasbourg to hear the verdict, said: "Now the Government has to lift the ban - they cannot maintain it after what the court said."
They were backed by Stonewall, the lesbian and gay rights organisation. Angela Mason, executive director of Stonewall, said: "The armed forces are desperately short of recruits so it makes no sense to dismiss highly trained people. Lifting the ban will not make our forces one bit less effective." The Tory spokesman on defence, Richard Ottaway, said: "The armed forces made it quite clear that in their judgement it will have an adverse effect on morale, it will affect operational effectiveness." He added: "The Government should get together with its European partners and consider whether or not the convention could be modified to allow individual countries to have an opt-out."
Gay life in forces, page 5
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