A Legal Landmark, But It's Not The End
Transsexual campaigners give cautious welcome to European court ruling
Campaigners for the rights of transsexual people today welcomed a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), overturning the United Kingdom's thirty-year failure to grant legal recognition of change of sex. In the fifth such case brought before the court by British trans people, judges upheld the applications of Christine Goodwin and a second applicant known only as "I".
The decision holds that British law breaches the human rights of transsexual people and it must be amended to allow legal recognition of their new sex.
However, campaigners also stressed the need for changes to UK law to implement the ruling, and expressed concerns at the speed and nature of such changes.
Press For Change Vice-President Dr Stephen Whittle, said today:
"This is a historic victory. It is the beginning of the end of a thirty-year legal nightmare for the UK's 5,000 trans people.
"However, the nightmare will continue until Parliament changes the law. We won't celebrate until that job is done."
Press For Change wants a change in statute law to ensure that trans people in the UK can have their birth certificates amended to reflect a change of sex, and that the change is valid for all legal purposes.
Stephen Whittle continued:
"A change in statute law is essential. Without it, the courts may not regard an amended birth certificate as final, leaving our sex open to further challenge.
This has already happened in the USA, where some transsexual people have found that amended birth certificates were not recognised in court.
"British courts got us into this mess thirty years ago, and they have repeatedly refused to undo the damage. We now rely on Parliament to clarify the situation once and for all, and save us from being dragged through the courts all over again."
Press For Change has drawn up detailed proposals for legislation, which would draw on the best aspects of legislation from other countries.
"It is now time for the government to make a clear commitment to legislate for change. We are ready to work with government to sort out the details, and to help them finish the job."
Previous litigant Mark Rees said:
"When I lost my case in 1986 I knew there were others waiting in the wings...if I should fail, they would carry on the fight, and so they have."
Background InformationThe UK remains one of only four out of 40 countries in the Council of Europe which fails to provide full legal recognition in their new gender for transsexual people:
the others are Albania, Andorra, and Ireland.
The ECHR has rejected four previous cases brought by British transsexual people:
Mark Rees in 1986;
Caroline Cossey (Model known as Tula) in 1990;
X, Y, & Z in 1997,
and Rachel Horsham & Kristina Sheffield in 1998.
Lack of legal recognition causes countless problems for transsexual people in their everyday lives. Despite being issued with corrected passports and driving licences reflecting their true sex, transsexual people remain legally in the sex assigned to them at birth. Apart from being unable to conduct a valid marriage, their tax and social security records retain the original sex, and insurance policies may be invalidated if they do not declare their legal status.
If convicted of a crime, they risk being sent to a prison for the opposite sex.
Any situation requiring the production of a birth certificate guarantees a breach of personal privacy, and a risk of discrimination or hostility.
The government insists that a birth certificate is not an identity document, yet civil service and public sector employers insist that it accompanies job applications.
Ministers have confirmed to Parliament that most government departments use the birth certificate as an identity document.
In April 1999, Home Secretary Jack Straw established an inter-departmental working group "To consider, with particular reference to birth certificates, the need for appropriate legal measures to address the problems experienced by transsexuals, having due regard to scientific and societal developments, and measures undertaken in other countries to deal with this issue."
The working group's report was published in July 2000.
It recognises that we face serious legal difficulties, and concludes that the status quo is unacceptable, and that full legal recognition is the only viable alternative to the status quo.
The working group was reconvened in June 2002, but the government has not yet indicated any intention to change the law.