R v Brown (1993) UKHL 19, (1994) 1 AC 212 is a landmark case in English criminal law decided by the House of Lords. It is often referred to as the Spanner case due to the nature of the activities involved. This case established the principle that consent is not a valid defence to the deliberate infliction of grievous bodily harm.
The case involved a group of gay men who engaged in sadomasochistic activities, including acts involving consensual violence and harm. The men participated in these activities willingly and without any evidence of coercion. The police, however, discovered photographs and videos of these activities and subsequently charged them with the various offences under the Offences against the Person Act 1861, including inflicting grievous bodily harm under Section 20 and assault occasioning actual bodily harm under Section 47. The central issue was whether the participants' consent to the infliction of harm could serve as a defence to criminal charges of assault and other offences.
The House of Lords ruled against the defendants. Lord Templeman, in his leading judgment, stated that consent could not be a defence in cases involving acts that were unpredictably dangerous and degrading to body and mind and were developed with increasing barbarity and taught to persons whose consents were dubious or worthless. The rationale was based on public policy considerations, as society is entitled and bound to protect itself against a cult of violence. The Court held that society's interest in preventing serious harm outweighed individual autonomy and the principle of consent in such cases.
R v Brown is significant for several reasons. First, it limited the principle of individual autonomy in consenting to activities that might result in harm to oneself. The ruling essentially said that some activities could not be legally consented to, even if all parties involved were willing participants. Second, it set a legal precedent for cases involving consent in the context of harm, particularly in the realm of sexual practices and BDSM (bondage, discipline, sadism, and masochism). The decision received criticism from various quarters, including legal scholars, human rights advocates, and those concerned with sexual freedom and individual privacy. Critics argued that it intruded into private matters between consenting adults.
In summary, the case remains a notable case in English law due to its impact on the legal treatment of consensual acts that may involve harm. It illustrates the tension between individual autonomy and societal interests in regulating certain behaviours, particularly in the context of private and consensual activities.
You can learn more about this topic with our Criminal Law notes.