Jury backs right to enjoy bondage and whipping

S&M court case sets precedent for intervention by police
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The Independent Online
The criminal law which governs the right of consenting adults to take part in public acts of sadomasochism was thrown into confusion yesterday after the manager of the Whiplash nightclub was cleared at Southwark Crown Court of keeping a disorderly house.

Martin Church, 36, of Sutton, Surrey, had told the court during his two- week trial that leather and rubber-clad revellers at the club enjoyed what they were doing and had a good time.

The basement nightspot, known as the Reflex Club on non-sadomasochistic nights, was raided by 60 police officers, some with dogs, in October 1994.

The raid was the culmination of an inquiry by vice squad officers who hired leather outfits to infiltrate the S&M sub-culture.

In court the officers told of hundreds of largely middle-aged "fetishly clad" men and women indulging in a variety of lewd acts. Constable Graham Munro said he frequently saw men and women being beaten.

The court also heard instances where one man, dressed as a schoolgirl, was whipped repeatedly after being tied to a 6ft-high padded cross.The beating was so hard, it was claimed, it drew blood.

Mr Church denied that the activities that had gone on in his club were as the Crown had claimed. He admitted customers at the Club Whiplash evenings were required to observe a "strict" dress code of fetishist gear and agreed: "Yes, I saw beatings, whippings and spankings." But he insisted people were not screaming, moaning or crying out. He said there was was no blood, no welts, no "areas of reddening".

The jury's decision followed an address by Mr Church's counsel, Paul Higham. He said "This is a test case in 1996 on how far a jury are prepared to permit the criminal law to control and punish the acts of consenting adults, and therefore a crucial issue for civil liberties."

The verdict re-opens the legal arguments that arose from the case in 1990 known as "Operation Spanner" where convictions were obtained on 16 men who had privately engaged in acts of agreed mutilations on each other. They had been charged with aiding and abetting assaults on themselves.

After the case yesterday Mr Higham said the jury "clearly felt that even if the prosecution's allegations were carried out, in 1996 what outrages the sense of morality was the mass genocide in Bosnia not the behaviour of consenting adults in relative privacy".

In his summing-up, Judge Peter Jackson had told the jury: "One thing you will have to consider in this case is are you sure certain things happened, and if those things did happen, do they outrage public decency."

The civil liberties campaigner Nettie Pollard described the jury's verdict as a "land mark decision".

Ms Pollard, spokeswoman for Liberty, formerly the National Council for Civil Liberties, said: "We very much welcome the decision and hope there will be no police harassment in the future."

She added: "This is a victory for civil liberties in Britain. Even if it had been a guilty verdict, it was a victimless crime - everyone had consented to what was going on.

"The central issue is to what extent the criminal law should interfere in people's private lives. This [case is] important because it provides the test and answer."

Mr Church had been brought to court under a 250-year-old law - the Disorderly Houses Act. During the trial the police undercover officers described in graphic detail scenes of public sexual intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, all performed to a background of hard-porn videos. However during the trial the police's evidence was challenged by members of the S&M club.

Dr Michael Jack Frost, a 66-year-old retired lecturer in geology, is a member of the Club Whiplash and was on the premises on the night of the police raid. He said he saw the video, which was "tame", but none of the other acts described by police.

Another middle-aged club member, Alison Ord, said she felt safer in Club Whiplash than in many other night clubs she had visited.

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