In January 2017, thousands of gay and bi men who were prosecuted for ‘sexual offences’ in previous decades in England and Wales, and have since died, were given an automatic pardon.
The Sexual Offences Act 1956 and other historical offences criminalised men for simple acts that are entirely legal today – this included having sex with men but also kissing, holding hands, going to LGBT venues or even chatting up other men.
The pardon – included in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 and often referred to as the so-called ‘Turing Law’ – was an important milestone, helping to draw a line under the damage caused to many thousands of lives. Crucially, the pardon was also accompanied by a clear apology from the UK Government to everyone both living and now dead, who had been persecuted under these laws in the past.
But this automatic pardon was posthumous, meaning it only applied to those already deceased. Anyone who was convicted under the old offences, and is still alive, has to make an application to get them deleted from their record. This is done by applying for a ‘disregard’ through the Home Office’s ‘disregard scheme.
A disregard is better than a pardon because the crime is physically deleted from the record. But the problem with this scheme is that people have only been able to ask to remove certain offences – ones that that were clearly focused on sexual activity. We know that in reality, the police used a wide range of laws to prosecute or caution gay or bi men in a discriminatory way. For example, many were prosecuted under Section 32 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 – solicitation by men – simply because they tried to chat up another man in a public place.
When the Historical Sexual Offences (Pardons and Disregards) (Scotland) Act 2018 was passed in the Scottish Parliament on 6 June 2018, this had the provision for disregards for gay and bi men. If their convictions were no longer illegal, they could apply for a formal disregard to have this removed from their criminal record, in addition to being granted an automatic pardon.
Thanks to lobbying from Stonewall, and support from our co-founder Lord Cashman in the House of Lords to the change the situation, the new Act will open up the ‘disregard scheme’ in England and Wales so it can be used to clear people’s record of offences like Section 32. The law in this area is complicated and hard to unpick, but this is fantastic news as it will mean every gay and bi man unjustly convicted or cautioned by the policy in the past for things that would be totally legal today, will be able to delete these unjust convictions for good from their record.