Landmark ruling means gay sex law must change

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The Independent Online

Britain will be forced to change its gross indecency laws after the Government was ordered to pay nearly £21,000 damages to a gay man convicted for having group sex at his home.

Britain will be forced to change its gross indecency laws after the Government was ordered to pay nearly £21,000 damages to a gay man convicted for having group sex at his home.

Judges at the European Court of Human Rights decided the original case had violated fundamental principles by breaching the man's "right to respect for a private family life". That means the law will have to be redrafted, although there is no formal deadline to do so.

The Yorkshireman who brought the case convicted for gross indecency between men under Section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 after police found a video of up to four men having oral sex at a party at his home. Known only as ADT, the man, who was born in 1948, was given a conditional discharge in November 1996.

While sex between men is legal if it is in private between two consenting partners who are 18 or over, gay men can be prosecuted if more people are involved or if the act is in public.

Yesterday the judges upheld the claim that the police action constituted interference with his private life under the European Convention on Human Rights. The court ruled that there was "no real likelihood of the video recording entering the public domain", making this a private act. It awarding ADT £20,929 in damages and £12,392 in costs.

ADT also claimed he suffered discrimination on the basis that heterosexuals could not have been prosecuted for a similar act. But, having found in his favour, the judges decided against examining that argument.

Angela Mason, executive director of the British gay rights group Stonewall, said: "This judgment drives a coach and horses through the gross indecency laws. It makes the new proposal, to introduce an even-handed public sex offence, even more pressing."

Peter Tatchell of the gay rights group Outrage! described the ruling as an "historic victory" arguing that it "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."

Stonewall has asked the Government to direct police not to pursue cases under this law. That was rejected by the Home Office, which said yesterday that "operational matters are the responsibility of chief constables" and that decisions to prosecute "will be matters for the independent Crown Prosecution Service".

There is little doubt the law will be changed, however. Last week, the Government published a report calling for a change to the laws on sexual offences. Gay rights groups want a single piece of legislation for homosexual and heterosexual offences, although they do not expect any move until after the election. The alternative, they warn, is unpicking the law with a series of test cases at the European Court.