Pardon or apology?

Pardon or apology?


Statutory pardons for those convicted of outdated ‘gross indecency' laws is a good start, but it does not close the book on the persecution of LGBT people, writes John van der Luit-Drummond

September 2017 will mark 60 years since the publication of the Wolfenden Report, the culmination of a three-year inquiry that paved the way for 'homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private' to be decriminalised, thus ending a dark chapter in the history of our justice system.

The passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 made sex between men over 21 years old legal. However, those already convicted for 'gross indecency' and placed on the so-called 'queer list' were left with a stain on their reputations and a criminal record. Fast forward half a century and an amendment to the Policing and Crime Bill will now see around 65,000 gay and bisexual men '“ including 15,000 still living '“ formally pardoned for now abolished sexual offences.

Those convicted can already apply to the Home Office to have their names cleared via the 'disregard' process, removing any mention of an offence from criminal record checks. But the Ministry of Justice has also gone a step further by introducing a new statutory pardon for the living in cases where offences have been deleted through the disregard process.

Justice minister Sam Gyimah said it was important to 'put right these wrongs' and build on the case of Alan Turing, the famed Enigma codebreaker who committed suicide after his conviction under section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885. He was posthumously pardoned in 2013.

The government intends, however, to oppose the private member's bill brought by John Nicolson MP, which proposes a blanket pardon for the living without the need to go through the disregard process. Ministers fear the bill could lead to people claiming to be cleared of offences that are still crimes '“ such as having sex with someone under 16 years old '“ and cause 'an extraordinary and unnecessary amount of distress to victims', said Gyimah. 'Our way forward will be both faster and fairer.'

Whether or not the MoJ's way is 'fairer' is a moot point. The Law Society's chief executive, Catherine Dixon, said the MoJ's announcement was a step in the right direction: 'People now know the injustice done to Alan Turing '“ but his was one life among many affected by these laws. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights have come a long way and this is a significant step along that road. But we should never forget the people who had their lives ruined by laws that enshrined prejudice and not justice.'

Former Solicitors Journal editor at large Kevin Poulter added his voice to the debate, arguing that although a pardon will bring some justice and comfort to the convicted and their families, for many it will not be enough. 'No formal apology has been made for the abhorrent, distressing, and often demeaning treatment of those convicted,' he said. 'Rather than being freed by an automatic pardon, the disregard process will force them to face again the cruelty they suffered and this cannot be right.'

In addition to those who were persecuted, there are countless others who were forced to live in the shadows. We may never know how many solicitors and barristers feared for their reputations and livelihoods, lest they be exposed as gay or bisexual. The profession, like society, has come a long way since 1967, but even ten years ago gay and lesbian solicitors still feared revealing their sexuality in case it hindered their career progression at 'macho' City firms, rife with 'undertones of homophobia'.

Moreover, 2015's Solicitor Profession Diversity Profile, published just this week, shows only 2.6 per cent of solicitors are lesbian, gay, or bisexual, despite estimates that between 5 and 7 per cent of the UK population is LGB. On this evidence, the profession still has some way to go to accept gay colleagues within its ranks. As Turing wrote in his seminal paper, Computing Machinery and Intelligence: 'We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can see plenty there that needs to be done.'

John van der Luit-Drummond is deputy editor at Solicitors Journal | @JvdLD