Today marks the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Before it was introduced, homosexual activity between men was a crime. The Act decriminalised private homosexual acts between men over 21 in England and Wales.
The passing of the Act was a milestone in the history of gay rights in the UK not least because it legalised sexual acts between men which had been criminalised for over 400 years by virtue of the Buggery Act of 1553. However the legalisation only offered partial decriminalisation. Firstly, the Act only legalised homosexual acts between men over 21 whereas the age of consent for sex between men and women was 16. This did not change until 2001 when the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 lowered the age of consent to 16, following the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which had already lowered the age of consent to 18. In addition, the decriminalisation applied only to sexual acts taking place in private; it did not include hotels or other “public places”.
In the years following the Act’s implementation, the number of convictions for homosexual offences actually rose. A recent House of Lords report on the anniversary of the Act states that during the period 1967-1997 23,669 men were convicted of buggery and 35, 394 men were convicted of gross indecency. This is compared to thirty years preceding the Act where 14, 539 men were convicted of buggery and 32, 565 men were convicted of gross indecency. Indeed, statistics published by the Home Office at the time cite that between 1967 and 1974 the number increased by around 55% and gay clubs and pubs were actively targeted and aggressively policed.
Furthermore, the Act did not extend to include the armed forces or the merchant navy. Military personnel could be convicted for sexual acts that were no longer a crime between civilians. In fact gay people were not allowed to serve openly in the UK’s armed forces until 2000.
While public opinion has gradually changed over time and anti-gay laws repealed over the years, it has been a slow burn. It was not until January this year that men were pardoned for previous convictions for homosexual acts which are no longer crimes. The Policing and Crime Act which came into force on 31 January 2017 automatically pardoned those who have passed away since their conviction for a homosexual offence. Those who are still alive can obtain a pardon by successfully applying to the Home Office to have their past convictions or cautions expunged from their criminal records. This is known as the “disregard process” and has been in place in England and Wales since 2012. A disregard will be granted only if the previous offending act was consensual and both men were over 16. If the disregard application is successful, the person will also be pardoned.
The criminal justice system is trying hard to keep up with society's developing views on LGBT rights. In addition to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts we have seen an increase in the number of prosecutions for homophobic and transphobic hate crimes. The CPS now provides guidance and "toolkits" on how best to investigate and protect those affected by these incidents. Nevertheless the criminal justice system can be old fashioned and institutional attitudes remain. This means that victims, witnesses and suspects from the LGBT community still face unique challenges when navigating their way through the process. A lot has changed in 50 years but more needs to be done.