Bowley fights to scrap gay “gross indecency' offence

A gay lawyers' think tank has sent a paper to government ministers proposing that sex in public becomes a public order offence and that the offence of gross indecency is abolished.

The working party, chaired by Martin Bowley QC, was set up after a Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association conference last year and has taken input from non-lawyer gay pressure groups including Stonewall, the Gay Police Initiative and the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group.

Last October, it was reported in The Lawyer that two senior male City lawyers were arrested for and convicted of gross indecency after a member of the public saw them having sex in an alley behind Waterloo Station.

At the time, Bowley pointed out that had the couple been a man and a woman they would almost certainly have been convicted of a public order offence, which carries a lower penalty and less stigma.

The current public order act states that someone is guilty of an offence if he “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour” within sight of someone who is likely to be caused alarm or distress.

The group is proposing to add “indecent behaviour” to the list. It also wants to add the rider that the gender of the people committing such acts should not be used to judge whether the act is abusive, insulting, disorderly or indecent.

It also wants to add a clause compelling police to get corroboration of indecent behaviour from a civilian witness.

Bowley said: “You've got to protect public decency but not with a sexual offences law. A sexual offences act should be protecting minors and others from sexual offences.”

Gross indecency carries a maximum two-year prison sentence and offenders can be ordered to sign a sexual offences register. Public order offences carry a maximum sentence of only six months.

Although papers have been sent to ministers with a view to changing the national law, Bowley warned that even if it was amended, police may still be able to use local bylaws to get around it.

The Lesbian and Gay Lawyers Association and the Bar Lesbian and Gay Group are holding a conference at the London Voluntary Resource Centre on 14 March. For information call 0171 630 7429 or 0181 208 0568.