Thursday, 11 August 2016

New book on Peter Wells and X. v the United Kingdom 1975-79

For those interested in the history of applications to the Strasbourg organs about sexual orientation discrimination, the case of X. v the United Kingdom (1975-79) has long been of significance and fascination. This is not least because the application - lodged by a twenty-six-year-old man who had been convicted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for committing buggery with two eighteen-year-old men - was the very first application concerning sexual orientation discrimination to be declared admissible by the European Commission of Human Rights. The complaint by the applicant - about both his conviction and the legislation under which it was secured - was also the first attempt to use the Convention as a means to challenge the 'age of consent' in England and Wales which, for male homosexual acts, was twenty-one years (five years higher than for most opposite-sex acts and female same-sex acts).

The Commission rejected all of the applicant's complaints brought under Articles 8, 10 and 14 of the Convention. The Commission's report has long been the subject of discussion and analysis by legal and socio-legal scholars and can be regarded as having provided an important foundation for subsequent complaints to the Commission about discrimination created by the age of consent. Yet, until now, very little - if anything - has been publicly known about the applicant who brought the case. I am pleased, therefore, that in my forthcoming book, Going to Strasbourg, the applicant's lawyer in the Commission, William Nash, provides an insightful oral history account of the case and discusses its importance. And I am delighted that a new book has now appeared that provides an illuminating and fascinating account of the applicant himself, Peter Wells. 

The Story About Peter Wells, by Merrick Badger, is a short but detailed account of Wells' life and the key events that led to his conviction and subsequent Strasbourg case. Badger has painstakingly traced Wells' life from his youth until his death, allowing us an insight into the biographical context in which the Strasbourg case was brought. Badger first became aware of Peter Wells when he noticed a reference to him in the first version of Tom Robinson's song 'Glad to be Gay'. An interest in the song sparked a quest to track down people who knew Wells - including, most importantly, Wells' eighteen-year-old boyfriend at the time of his arrest and conviction - and to interview them. The interview material allows Badger to bring Wells' story to life and to highlight the appalling treatment he endured. What becomes apparent is that Wells was a 'complex' character, and the book does not ignore certain 'difficult' aspects of the intimate relationships he formed with others. On the contrary, the book attempts to tease out some of these issues and show how they contributed to Wells' treatment by the criminal justice system and by the Strasbourg organs. 

The book is a moving account of the criminalisation of a man for engaging in intimate relationships that are now legal and of the failure of the Convention system to protect him. I recommend it to anyone interested in this case or Strasbourg case law on sexual orientation generally.

The book is available here:


An audiobook, wonderfully read by Tom Robinson, is also available. 

The Commission's report on X. v the United Kingdom is available here: