Marital Rape a Crime, Britain’s Highest Court Decrees : Law: The ruling sweeps away a 250-year-old legal principle as ‘anachronistic and offensive.’


In a historic decision, Britain’s highest court ruled Wednesday that a husband may be convicted of raping his wife.

The law lords of the House of Lords--Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court--overturned 250 years of what some women called “sexual slavery” by rejecting the legal principle that there is no such crime of rape inside marriage. The decision upheld a decision by the lower Court of Appeal that swept away the traditional concept last March--thus, now making it the unchallenged law of the land here.

The law lords, members of Parliament’s upper chamber, dismissed a final appeal by a 38-year-old Leiscester man who received a three-year jail sentence for assaulting and trying to rape his estranged wife at her parents’ home. He was not publicly named to protect the identity of his wife.


Lord Keith, heading the five-member tribunal, said in the Wednesday decision that a 1736 declaration by Chief Justice Matthew Hale that marriage meant that a wife had given her body with irrevocable consent to her husband under all circumstances is unacceptable in modern times.

In the earlier, recent appellate ruling, Chief Justice Lord Lane had declared the legal theory that a man could not rape his own wife to be an “anachronistic and offensive fiction,” adding: “A rapist remains a rapist and is subject to the criminal law, irrespective of his relationship with his victim.”

After the Wednesday announcement in the ornate House of Lords, supporters of Women Against Rape broke into cheers in the public gallery and were evicted. Later, the group’s spokeswoman, Claire Glasman, declared: “This is a fantastic day for women everywhere. The law lords have finally nailed a legal lie, which has somehow survived for nearly three centuries.

“This is really a step towards valuing women’s rights and making it clear legally that women have the right to say no to sex, even if they are married,” she said. “It overturns 250 years of legal sexual slavery, which has been based not on a court case but on an 18th-Century judge’s decision that a husband could not rape his wife.”

She estimated that 15 to 20 similar cases “have been frozen in the pipeline awaiting today’s decision. Those cases will now be able to go to court.”

Another group spokeswoman, Anne Neale, added: “We’re absolutely delighted that the law lords have finally brought themselves and the law in respect to rape in marriage into the 20th Century. We have been campaigning for this since 1977.”


Neale also asserted that large numbers of British women, perhaps as many as one in seven, were victims of marital rape. She argued that Wednesday’s decision means that married women can now claim criminal injury compensation for rape and that her group will encourage women to pursue such claims.

Conservative MP Teresa Gorman welcomed the ruling, declaring: “Good. So it should be. If a woman says no, she has a right.” Gorman said the principle that a wife could not refuse her husband’s advances went back to the days of women being considered merely chattel.

Home Office Minister John Patten said: “I strongly feel that a rapist is a rapist, whether he is married to his victim or not. So I warmly welcome this decision.”

Patten added that he would seek a ruling from the Law Commission as to whether passing a law in Parliament would be desirable to solidify the high court’s decision.

Labor Party spokeswoman Jo Richardson said her party would seek a parliamentary law prohibiting marital rape, so that such cases would not be left to the “whim of the judges.”