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The Spanner Trust - History of the Spanner Case

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The History of the Spanner Case

Below is an account of the investigation and legal battles occasioned by what was termed 'Operation Spanner'.

In December 1990 in the UK, 16 gay men were given prison sentences of up to four and a half years or fined for engaging in consensual SM activity. This followed a police investigation called Operation Spanner prompted by the chance finding of a videotape of SM activities.

The convictions have now been upheld by both the Court of Appeal and the Law Lords in the UK and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Despite what you may have read in the newspapers, for the most part, the men were convicted of the standard offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Their defence, that they had all consented to the activities, was denied.

SM is not itself 'illegal'.

However, if the police discover you have engaged in SM activities which have caused injury, you and your partner could be prosecuted for assault. top of page

The Case
During a raid in 1987 the police seized a videotape which showed a number of identifiable men engaging in heavy SM activities including beatings, genital abrasions and lacerations. The police claim that they immediately started a murder investigation because they were convinced that the men were being killed. This investigation is rumoured to have cost 4 million. Dozens of gay men were interviewed. The police learned that none of the men in the video had been murdered, or even suffered injuries which required medical attention. However the police may well have felt that they had to bring some prosecutions to justify their expensive investigation. top of page

The Verdicts
In December 1990, 16 of the men pleaded guilty on legal advice to a number of offences and were sent to jail, given suspended jail sentences or fined. The men's defence was based on the fact that they had all consented to the activities. But Judge Rant, in a complex legal argument, decided that the activities in which they engaged fell outside the exceptions to the law of assault.

A number of the defendants appealed against their convictions and sentences. Their convictions were upheld though the sentences were reduced as it was felt they might well have been unaware that their activities were illegal. However the Appeal Court noted that this would not apply to similar cases in the future. The case then went to the House of 'Lords. The Law Lords heard the case in 1992 and delivered their judgement in January 1993. They upheld the convictions by a majority of three to two. top of page

The Evidence
The evidence against the men comprised the videotape and their own statements. When they were questioned by the police, the men were so confident that their activities were lawful (because they had consented to them) that they freely admitted to taking part in the activities on the video. Without these statements and the videotape, the police would have had no evidence to present against the men and would have found it impossible to bring any prosecutions. top of page

The Law Of Assault
In law, you cannot, as a rule, consent to an assault. There are exceptions. For example, you can consent to a medical practitioner touching and possibly injuring your body; you can consent to an opponent hitting or injuring you in sports such as rugby or boxing; you can consent to tattoos or piercings if they are for ornamental purposes. You can also use consent as a defence against a charge of what is called Common Assault. This is an assault which causes no significant injury. top of page

The Judgement
The Law Lords ruled that SM activity provides no exception to the rule that consent is no defence to charges of assault occasioning actual bodily harm or causing grievous bodily harm. These are defined as activities which cause injuries of a lasting nature. Bruises or cuts could be considered lasting injuries by a court, even if they heal up completely and that takes a short period of time. Grievous bodily harm covers more serious injury and maiming. Judge Rant introduced some new terms to define what he considered to be lawful and unlawful bodily harm. Judge Rant decreed that bodily harm applied or received during sexual activities was lawful if the pain it caused was "just momentary" and "so slight that it can be discounted". His judgement applies also to bodily marks such as those produced by beatings or bondage. These too, according to him, must not be of a lasting nature. In essence, Judge Rant decided that any injury, pain or mark that was more than trifling and momentary was illegal and would be considered an assault under the law. top of page

The Spanner Trust always tries to ensure that all information provided is accurate and up-to-date. However, the law can change and is open to interpretation. Before relying upon any statement made by the Spanner Trust you should take your own independent legal advice and the Spanner Trust cannot accept any liability whatsoever.