Response by Legal Feminist to Consultation on the Deception as to Gender section in the Rape and Serious Sexual Offences (RASSO) legal guidance

Written by a multidisciplinary team of feminist lawyers headed up by Sarah Vine KC


  1. The existing legal framework in respect of consent obtained by deception establishes two authoritative positions:

 (i)       Where consent to a sexual act has been obtained by a deliberate deception as to a matter sufficiently proximate to the nature or purpose of that act, that consent may be vitiated; and

 (ii)      The fact of a sexual partner’s biological sex is so fundamental to the freedom and capacity of a person to agree to sexual activity[1] that a deliberate and operative deception as to biological sex is capable of vitiating consent.[2]

2.         The CPS is a creature of statute. It has no function other than to uphold the law by prosecuting criminal offences as stipulated in the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. The CPS is a public authority which must operate within the law, and it has a duty to act in compliance with the European Convention of Human Rights[3]. It has no power to create or change the law.     

3.         The CPS may adopt policies to ensure that its charging decisions are consistent with the relevant rights engaged. In the context of this consultation, the relevant rights are those under Articles 3, 6, 7, 8 and 14 ECHR. Policies must operate within the confines of the existing law; the CPS cannot make or change the law through its policies.    

4.         The current CPS charging policy is irrational and unlawful. The proposed changes exacerbate these faults. Both current and proposed guidance invite lawyers tasked with making charging decisions to take account of matters which are irrelevant, prejudicial, unreliable and ideological.     

5.         The guidance undermines the effect of McNally in relation to a suspect who expresses a belief in a gender identity and asserts a gender identity at variance with his or her biological sex.

6. The guidance elides two matters which are categorically different in both fact and law. 

(i) A suspect’s knowledge of his or her biological sex;         
(ii) A suspect’s belief that he or she has a gender identity.

The former is something which any person over the age of criminal responsibility can be taken to possess. The latter is a subjective and metaphysical belief. It can be claimed by anyone but can be neither verified nor falsified. 

7. It is apparent that the guidance is drafted based on one or both of two false premises:

 (i)       That gender identity allows a person a discrete category of heightened privacy;

(ii)       That the belief in gender identity is capable of eclipsing, for all material and legal purposes, a person’s understanding of their own biological sex.

8. The introduction of either of these premises into the determination of criminal liability is a significant departure from the law as articulated in McNally, and enjoys no legal authority from any source. It is a purported change in the law which would almost certainly require primary legislation, and which on any view the CPS is not competent to make.



9.         Sex is an objective, fixed and verifiable characteristic[4]. It is biological and binary in its nature; people with ‘intersex’ or DSD conditions are male or female, irrespective of those conditions. Sex is one of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010[5].

Gender Identity

10. Gender identity is a disputed notion. The proposed guidance demonstrates the nebulous character of gender identity in the various attempts to define and illustrate it. Gender identity has no legal definition. It is a wider concept than the legally defined ‘gender reassignment’[6] which, itself, is wider than the category of people with a Gender Recognition Certificate pursuant to the Gender Recognition Act 2004.           

11. A GRC grants the holder the right to be treated as their acquired gender. The scope of this right was described by Choudhury J. in Forstater v CGD Europe[7] in the following way.           

“Although section 9 of the GRA refers to a person becoming “for all purposes” the acquired gender, it is clear from these references in decisions of the House of Lords and the Court of Appeal, that this means for all “legal purposes”. That the effect of section 9 of the GRA is not to erase memories of a person’s gender before the acquired gender or to impose recognition of the acquired gender in private, non-legal contexts is confirmed by the comments of Baroness Hale PSC in R (C) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2017] 1 WLR 4127 .”

  1. Accordingly, a GRC does not change someone’s sex biologically. Biological sex in humans is immutable[8]. It is not changed by gender identity. Gender identity is not sex. It is not a universally accepted idea, nor even a broad social consensus. It is a subjective and metaphysical position assumed by an individual.    
  2. The Gender Recognition Act requires only that the applicant obtain a diagnosis of gender dysphoria; no surgical, chemical or other medical interventions are required. Intervention by way of hormones or cosmetic remodelling of secondary sexual characteristics is optional and, in any event, incapable of changing a person’s biological sex. The vast majority of those who describe themselves in terms that fall under Stonewall’s ‘trans umbrella’ (to which the authors of the guidance refer) have had no surgical alteration. 


Deception and Consent: The Current Position

14.       The law relating to deception as to one’s sex is clear and settled. The statutory framework comprises s.74 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which defines consent, and s.76(2), which sets out the limited circumstances in which an operative deception will be held conclusively to vitiate both consent and any claim of reasonable belief in consent. Those circumstances are:

(i) deception as to the nature or purpose of the act, or 

(ii) impersonation of someone known to the complainant.

15. Beyond the conclusive presumptions, litigation has focused on the impact of deception on the freedom and capacity of a person to give consent (per s.74 SOA 2003). The determinative line held by the CACD has been one of proximity to the nature and/or purpose of the act[9]. The circumstances in which deception vitiates consent are narrow, and Parliament decided not to widen it by including in the 2003 Act any prohibition analogous to the terms of s.3 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956 (Procuring a Woman by False Pretences).           

16. The extent to which the CPS has strayed from legal authority is brightly illustrated in the fallacious assertion that an active deception may have occurred:

“where a suspect [with a GRC] falsely asserts that their gender identity is the same as their birth gender/assigned biological sex.”       

17.       This is a difficult concept. Those who have drafted the guidance appear to have in mind a situation in which a person who possesses a GRC and therefore may be presumed to have a gender identity at odds with his or her biological sex claims to have a gender identity congruent with his or her biological sex. So, for example, a trans-identifying male with a GRC declaring him to be a woman, but who falsely asserts that his gender identity is male; or vice versa.

18. The only deception in such circumstances would be as to gender identity. The guidance advises that a deliberate deception as to gender identity can vitiate consent. This must proceed from a position that gender identity is as close to the nature and/purpose of a sexual act as biological sex itself. This is a wholly fanciful proposition for which there is no legal basis. 

Gender Identity & Deception

19.       The idea of deception as to one’s gender identity is meaningless, because gender identity is neither verifiable nor falsifiable. With the exception of an expressed preference for opposite-sex pronouns, everything that might be relied on as proof of ‘living as a woman’ / ‘living as a man’ refers to inherently sexist imposed social codes and norms.         

20.       Gender identities are necessarily formulated by reference to a person’s biological sex. They cannot eradicate a person’s knowledge of his/her own sex. A belief that biological sex is of no importance, or that it is of subordinate importance to a person’s gender identity, does not alter the fact that every person knows their own sex. The same applies to the belief that gender identity should be allowed to take legal and social primacy over biological sex. A belief that one is ‘born in the wrong body’ is an acknowledgement of one’s biological sex. A belief that compliance with social codes of femininity and masculinity are what define men and women does not alter a person’s knowledge of their own sex. The assertion of a gender identity may be a signal that the person does not believe sex is of any real importance, but it also recognises that society at large believes otherwise. 

21.       A Gender Recognition Certificate creates a legal fiction that a person is for most legal purposesthe sex that s/he, objectively and scientifically, is not. A legal fiction is a ‘deliberate deception’, in circumstances where the latter term is stripped of its pejorative weight.            

22.       A person (with or without a GRC) who is ‘living as a man’ or ‘living as a woman’ may be presumed to be engaged in a deliberate deception, assuming that they seek to ‘pass’ as the opposite sex. Legally and socially, there is a broad consensus that such a deception should be accepted, or treated as acceptable, for many purposes in that person’s public life. (That person’s use of, and access to, single-sex spaces does not fall within the consensus, but will not be addressed here.)

23.       ‘Identifying as’ a man or as a woman cannot be equated with a genuine belief that one is male or female. In order genuinely to believe that s/he is biologically the other sex (as opposed to, for example, believing that sex is not biologically defined), a person would have to be suffering from a delusion. Some proponents of the ideology which underpins the idea of gender identity (‘gender ideology’) will assert that there is such a thing as a ‘female penis’ and a ‘male vagina’. These are ideological emanations which seek simply to reorganise biological facts in line with the philosophical position that the categories of male and female are subjective and independent of biology; since such a position refuses to recognise the law, it cannot amount to a genuine belief for the purposes of the law.

24.       The proposals advise prosecutors to treat what they regard as a genuine assertion of a gender identity as evidence of a genuine belief about a person’s sex in assessing an allegation of deception as to sex. This would be analogous to treating a man’s sincerely-held religious belief that wedding vows function as a perpetual consent to sex as evidence of both consent and a reasonable belief in consent in assessing an allegation of the rape of his wife.            

25.       The guidance turns on the idea that a person’s gender identity, if genuine, may render a deception as to their sex inadvertent. It advances the staggering proposition: 

“If a suspect genuinely perceives their gender identity to be different to their birth assigned sex or if their gender identity is in a state of flux and/or emerging, this may be evidence there was not a deliberate deception.”        

26.       This is irrational and amounts to a breach of Article 14 in respect of relevant substantive rights (paragraphs 30 to 35 below) for both complainants and suspects. It results in a situation in which the philosophical beliefs of one cohort of suspects will or may:

(i) impact on the likelihood of charge;

(ii) determine the availability of a defence to any suspect;

(iii) undermine the accessibility and foreseeability of the law for suspects; and

(iv) diminish the legal protection for complainants from inhumane treatment.

27.       As a defence it could only be afforded to people who believe in gender ideology or purport to do so (the availability of such a defence could be expected to encourage false declarations of belief). Its success or otherwise at trial would depend on the ideological beliefs of a jury, because a jury will only be able to accept that gender identity renders a deception inadvertent if the members subscribe to specific precepts of gender ideology. It would not, therefore, be a question of whether the members of the jury accept a defendant’s account, but whether they agree with its ideological premise. That is an invidious position in which to place both a complainant and a defendant, and a wholly unreasonable approach to the assessment of evidence in making a charging decision. It is doubtful that so arbitrary an operation of the law would satisfy the definition of an impartial tribunal for the purposes of Article 6 or the qualitative requirements of legality for the purposes of Article 7.


Article 3: Prohibition of Inhumane Treatment

28.       Rape and Sexual Assault amount to inhumane treatment for the purposes of Article 3. The right not to be subjected to such treatment is absolute, and the effect of Articles 3 and 8 is to impose on the State an obligation to provide protection from, and legal redress for, rape and sexual assault committed by private individuals[10]. To the extent that the guidance precludes or impedes a positive charging decision on an unlawful basis, it runs contrary to Article 3 amounting to a failure by the State to meet those obligations.

Article 8: Respect for Private and Family Life 

29.       The most prominent legal error in respect of Article 8 is the silence as to a complainant’s rights to a private and family life (in particular as they interact with Article 3 rights). Article 8 rights apply to all individuals in the context of consent obtained by deception and the investigation into, charging decisions about, and the prosecution of such an allegation. The interference with rights to a private and family life involved in the prevention of crime[11] (as well as the protection of rights under Article 3) is justified where it represents a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, necessary in a democratic society. The guidance views rights to a private and family life exclusively through the prism of the deceiver’s experience without any apparent regard for that of the deceived.         

30.       The sections entitled ‘Gender Dysphoria’ and ‘Gender Recognition Act’ disclose two further errors of law. One is to extend, without any legal basis, the protected characteristic of gender reassignment to include anyone with a stated gender identity which is at variance from their biological sex. The other is to treat privacy , again without any legal basis as a freestanding matter to be taken into account in assessing the factual matrix of an allegation, specifically the question of privacy as to a suspect’s biological sex. Both of these errors are in concert with the legal changes contended for by lobbying organisations such as Stonewall, Mermaids, Gendered Intelligence, Global Butterflies etc (all primarily concerned with the promotion and legal adoption of gender ideology).    

31.       In support of the erroneous approach to rights to a private and family life, the guidance cites the ‘CPS Trans Equality Statement’ from 2019 and the Equal Treatment Bench Book 2021. Neither has any legal force. The former was promulgated shortly before the short-lived CPS LGBT Hate Crime guidance for schools[12]. Emphasis is also placed on s.22 of the GRA which provides that it is an offence for a person who has acquired information about a person’s GRC in an official capacity to disclose this information to another person. Whilst the citation of this provision is not inaccurate, it discloses a partiality in the perspective of those drafting the policy. The restrictions on data processing set out in s.22 GRA add nothing to the provisions of Article 9(1) of the UK GDPR and s.170 Data Protection Act 2018 in respect of those holding, or applying for, a GRC. Article 9(1) of the UK GDPR, however, applies equally to all suspects and all complainants in allegations of sexual offending. In the context of a document suffused with the language of gender ideology, this choice does not present as inadvertent or politically neutral.   

32.       The obligations of Article 14 apply to the protection of Article 8 rights for both complainant and suspect. Trans identified people have a right not to be discriminated against in the enjoyment of their right to privacy. But a decision not to prosecute based on the legal errors in this guidance would engage the Article 8 and 14 rights of complainants, since the vast majority of complainants in such allegations are female. The scope of deceptions capable of vitiating consent to sexual activity is already extremely narrow; this guidance would limit that scope further, and exclusively to the benefit of trans-identified suspects. In doing so, it would reduce the level of protection afforded to victims whose consent has been obtained by deception as to the accused’s sex. This introduces an asymmetry to the protection against deception, leaving some victims at a material disadvantage against those whose consent has been vitiated by other operative deceptions, or by suspects who do not identify as trans. It creates a further asymmetry in the approach to charging as between those suspects who identify as trans (or claim to) and those who do not, engaging the Article 14 rights of suspects who do not identify as trans in respect of their protection under Article 7.         

33.       The legal position in respect of privacy as it pertains to consent obtained by deception is as follows:

(i)        There is no legal authority for the proposition that a person has a privacy right to withhold the fact of his/her biological sex from a sexual partner.

(ii)       The Article 8 rights of complainants in allegations of sexual offending are engaged; the right to privacy encompasses a complainant’s psychological integrity, bodily autonomy and dignity, all of which are centrally relevant to both the act(s) complained of and any consequential investigation and litigation.

(iii)      Complainants in allegations of sexual offending have an enhanced general position in privacy in domestic law[13].            

(iv)      To the extent that an accused person can rely on the right to respect for his/her private and family life, the right to privacy is generally lost upon charge[14]. Such exceptional cases in which a right to privacy subsists are dealt with by way of reporting restrictions.    

(v)       The right to anonymity for a defendant is a matter of ongoing contention and would require the authority of primary legislation before it could be given effect. 

(vi)      There is no reason why a trans identified suspect (or a suspect claiming to identify as trans) should have an enhanced right to privacy where another suspect would not. Such a proposition enjoys no support from s.22 GRA, the Data Protection Act 2018, the Equality Act 2010, the Human Rights Act 1998 or any case law.

(vii)     If, and to the extent that, both complainant and accused have ECHR rights engaged, the proper approach is the “intense focus” test[15], articulated by Lord Steyn at §17 thus:

“First, neither article [8 or 10] has as such precedence over the other. Secondly, where the values under the two articles are in conflict, an intense focus on the comparative importance of the specific rights being claimed in the individual case is necessary. Thirdly, the justifications for interfering with or restricting each right must be taken into account. Finally, the proportionality test must be applied to each.”

34.       The process of accurately identifying rights to a private and family life as they relate to trans identified suspects has been made significantly more difficult by the way in which the guidance creates a single cohort of people with different legal statuses. Those with a GRC fall under Article 9(1) of the UK GDPR, and s.7 of the Equality Act 2010. Those without a GRC but who are “proposing to undergo, undergoing or ha[ve] undergone a process (or part of a process) for the purpose of reassigning [their] sex by changing physiological or other attributes of sex” fall under s.7 EA 2010. Those who have not undergone, and do not propose to undergo, any process of sex reassignment but who assert a gender identity different from their sex do not fall into the scope of either provision. None of the categories are entitled to an enhanced right to privacy, and the latter two have no access to the data processing limitations of Article 9(1) of the UK GDPR.[16]


35.       The introductory remarks state that the proposed guidance is intended to assist prosecutors with a complex area of law. Since the unwavering focus of the proposed guidance is the trans-identified suspect’s right to privacy pursuant to Article 8, as it is said to interact with domestic law on deliberate deception as to sex, it would be reasonable to expect an indication of where, the protection of a suspect’s Article 8 rights is failing in practice. The consultation document is, however, silent as to this. Expressed bluntly, the guidance creates the impression that suspects who identify as trans should be more readily excused criminal liability for deception as to sex, not because the deception was not deliberate, but because they identify as trans.            

36.       The guidance treats a suspect’s gender identity as a relevant, or even determinative, factor in establishing whether a deliberate deception as to sex has occurred. Whether it is right, desirable or workable for this position to be brought into law is an undoubtedly important issue. It remains, however, unlitigated and unlegislated. Embedding a preferred view on the matter into policy in this way represents an overreach on the part of the CPS so startling that it could be described as an attempt to usurp the function of Parliament. The effect of the guidance is to interpret and apply the substantive law as though it had been changed in a number of respects, all of which are so significant that they would require binding judicial authority at the very least, if not primary legislation. This goes far beyond the CPS’s duty to apply the law and trespasses unambiguously into the territory of making law. It is frustrating the legislative function conferred on the CPS and is ultra vires.

37.       The guidance elides two categorically different uses of the word ‘gender’ in circumstances where the distinction between the two is central to the legal issue at hand. ‘Gender’ in the sense that it was used by Leveson LJ in McNally means biological sex, a matter which meets the legal requirement of proximity to the nature and purpose of the sexual act. This is the only meaning of ‘gender’ pertinent to the question of whether a deception as to sex was deliberate. ‘Gender’ in any of its other senses (a societal system of norms used to protect and enforce inequality between men and women, an individual’s metaphysical ‘sense of self’, a political identity etc) is incapable of meeting that same requirement and is wholly irrelevant to the assessment of whether a deliberate deception took place. The elision of these two matters for the purposes of applying the legal test does not serve the stated aim of the consultation (to assist prosecutors to have a better understanding of the law). Instead, it appears to promote an avoidable, unnecessary and legally baseless confusion with the result that prosecutors will be advised to make decisions on the basis of irrelevant considerations. This is an error of law and is, in our view, unlawful.

38.       The guidance expands beyond their legal definition the scope of s.9 of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (misinterpreting the phrase “for all purposes” as applying far beyond the GRC holder’s public life) and s.7 of the Equality Act 2010 (to construe the protected characteristic of gender reassignment as being coterminous with gender identity), such as to make the legal and practical consequences of those provisions opaque. The combined effect of these misinterpretations is to confer a special status (reaching beyond the protections of the Equality Act 2010, the Gender Recognition Act 2004 or the Data Protection Act 2018) on an expanded cohort of suspects, whose common characteristic (gender identity) is not legally recognised. This further renders the guidance unlawful for errors of law and frustration of the legislative purpose.          

            THE SECTIONS

Gender Dysphoria

39.       Two sentences of this section are dedicated to the explanation of gender dysphoria as a medical diagnosis. The remainder of the section is given over to the somewhat different (and non-medical) topic of gender identity, perhaps to suggest that the two are largely coextensive. The relevant point is that both gender dysphoria and gender identity involve an individual having a clear understanding of what his or her biological sex is. Neither has any impact on the fact or nature of a deception as to sex.      

Evidential Considerations

40.       The point extracted from paragraph 26 of R v McNally [2013] EWCA Crim 1051 is correct, in that the CACD did find that the Appellant’s deception was deliberate. From this, the CPS assumes the position that the ‘inadvertent but operative’ deception as to sex is something of which a suspect should be able to avail him or herself by relying on the authenticity of his or her gender identity to establish inadvertence.            

41.       The axis around which the deception turns is the physical binary of sex; unless and until Parliament decides otherwise, gender identity is immaterial for the purposes of establishing whether there has been such a deception or whether it was deliberate; any guidance must reflect this fact in a way that is logical and immediately comprehensible. Deception as to gender/gender identity cannot negative consent, because a person’s stated ‘internal sense of self’ (sincere or otherwise) does not meet the threshold of proximity either to the ‘nature or purpose of the act’ for the purposes of s.76 SOA 2003 or to the act itself for the purposes of s.74 SOA 2003[17]. One need only consider a scenario in which B (a female) consents to penetrative intercourse with A (a male) on the basis that A has told B that his gender identity is Genderqueer, when it is, in fact, Two-Spirit. However unlikely such a scenario might be, no rational reading of the law would support the conclusion that B’s consent was vitiated by A’s deception.

42.       By contrast, misrepresenting one’s gender identity as one’s sex (where the former is opposed to the latter) is a necessarily deliberate deception. Every person knows their sex from a very young age, long before the age of consent. A person’s feelings or beliefs about the fact of their sex may be a source of great distress and pain to them, but the legal fiction afforded by a GRC cannot trespass into the arena of sexual consent. To operate otherwise would be to prioritise the privacy and dignity of some people at the expense of the privacy, dignity and right not to be subjected to inhumane treatment of their current or prospective sexual partners.     

43.       Virtually everything in the following extract from this section is legally confused or  wrong. This passage is diagnostic of the extent to which the proposed guidance is an ideologically driven attempt to circumvent the law as it currently stands:

“There is no duty to disclose gender history[18], but in some circumstances suspects who are living in a new gender identity at the time of the alleged offending (as opposed to falsely purporting to be a different gender), including those who have obtained a GRC[19], may still be capable of actively deceiving a complainant as to such matters relating to their gender. For example, where a suspect falsely asserts that their gender identity is the same as their birth gender/assigned biological sex[20]; or lies in response to questions about their gender history; or denies being a trans man or a trans woman[21].”

44.       It is, perhaps, worth noting that at §10 of McNally, the appellant was described as repeatedly expressing the desire for a “sex change”. As previously observed, McNally uses the language of 2013, but the terminology of gender ideology would have little difficulty in describing her as a ‘trans man’. The proposed guidance may well result in a decision not to charge in the circumstances that met the court in McNally. The decision in McNally has drawn criticism from prominent proponents of gender ideology[22], to the effect that deception as to sex does not incur sufficient harm to justify the interference with a transgender suspect’s privacy. The authors of this policy appear to be seeking to overturn McNally without having to wait for any countervailing authority or legislation. 

45.       The legal protection of gender reassignment (not gender identity) creates conflicts with two other protected characteristics; sex and sexual orientation. It is difficult to identify an area of life in which those conflicts have a greater impact than they do in sexual activity. The centrality of a partner’s sex to a victim’s freedom and capacity to choose, and therefore consent, is set out in paragraph 26 of McNally:

“Thus while, in a physical sense, the acts of assault by penetration of the vagina are the same whether perpetrated by a male or a female, the sexual nature of the acts is, on any common-sense view, different where the complainant is deliberately deceived by a defendant into believing that the latter is a male. Assuming the facts to be proved as alleged, M chose to have sexual encounters with a boy and her preference (her freedom to choose whether or not to have a sexual encounter with a girl) was removed by the defendant’s deception.”

46.       In the section ‘Was the complainant deceived and therefore did not consent?’, the influence of the gender ideology lobby is evident once again. Half of the questions invite an approach in which a complainant should be considered responsible for establishing whether s/he is being deceived about a sexual partner’s sex.

“Has the complainant closed their eyes to the obvious or wilfully ignored aspects of the suspect’s gender? For instance, did the complainant have an opportunity to discover or confirm the gender of the suspect but chose not to avail themselves of the opportunity?”          

“Is there any evidence that the complainant was exploring their own sexuality at the time of the alleged offending?”

47.       It has been a number of years since so sceptical an assessment of complainants of sexual offending has been considered acceptable at the CPS. This runs counter to the strategy of ‘offender focused’ investigations which the CPS has developed as part of its Violence Against Women and Girls strategy.                 

48.       The adoption of these revisions would expose the CPS to the very real risk of litigation on the basis that the guidance is irrational and unreasonable, that it breaches of the rights of victims under Articles 3, 7, 8, and 14 of the ECHR, the rights of suspects under Articles 7, 8 and 14 of the ECHR, and the Public Sector Equality Duty pursuant to s.149 of the Equality Act. The absence of an Equality Impact Assessment for this consultation is striking; it could be fairly regarded as shorthand for the comprehensive failure – or refusal – to consider the multiple conflicts of rights thrown up by this guidance.  

49.       For all the above reasons, we urge the CPS to suspend the current guidance and to withdraw these proposals. Any replacement must be drafted with the objective of upholding the CPS’s legal obligations as they are, and not as some would wish them to be.

[1] s.74 Sexual Offences Act 2003

[2] R v McNally [2013] EWCA Crim 1051

[3] S.6 Human Rights Act 1998

[4] Corbett v Corbett [1971]; Bellinger v Bellinger [2003] 2 AC 467, HL; Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police v A (No 2) [2005] 1 AC 51, HL

[5] S.11 and s.212 Equality Act 2010

[6] S.7 ibid

[7] [2022] I.C.R. 1 at §97

[8] R (oao Elan Cane (Appellant)) v SSHD [2021] UKSC 56 at §3

[9] v Jheeta [2007] 2 Cr. App. R. 34 §24; R(F) v DPP [2013] 2 Cr. App. R. 21; R v McNally (2013) EWCA Crim 1051; R (Monica) v. Director of Public Prosecutions [2018] EWHC 3508 (Admin) at §74, §80; R v Lawrance (2020] EWCA Crim 971

[10] MC v Bulgaria (2005) 40 E.H.R.R. 20 at paragraphs 151-153; D v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2019] A.C. 196

[11] Article 8(2) ECHR

[12] This was withdrawn in 2020 in the early stages of a public law challenge

[13] S.1 Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992

[14] ZXC v Bloomberg [2022] UKSC 5

[15] In re S [2004] HL 47

[16] Article 9(2)(f) UK GDPR

[17] R v Lawrance (2020] EWCA Crim 971, Assange v Sweden [2011] EWHC 2849 (Admin), R (oao Monica) v DPP [2018] EWCA 3508 (Admin)

[18] Assuming that ‘gender history’ includes a reference to a person’s biological sex, this is a somewhat tendentious interpretation of R v B [2006] EWCA Crim 2945 and sits in contradiction to Lawrance at paragraph 41.

[19] This implies, incorrectly, that possession of a GRC entitles a person to deceive a sexual partner about their biological sex.  

[20] See §17ff above

[21] This clearly relates to the fact of a person’s biological sex

[22] See e.g.; ‘Sexual Intimacy and Gender Identity ‘Fraud’: Reframing the Legal and Ethical Debate’; Alex Sharpe, Routledge

The new interim version of the Equal Treatment Bench Book:

A significant step forward in its guidance on ‘Trans People’, but a long way still to go

A Guest Blog By Maureen OHara. She is a legal academic and former solicitor, who is doing research into the impact on women’s rights of the adoption of gender identity theory by criminal justice agencies

In December 2021 a new interim version of the Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book (ETBB) was published. Its guidance on ‘Trans People’ in chapter 12 includes significant amendments which take account of some of the criticisms of earlier versions made by gender critical feminists and lawyers.

These criticisms relate to broadly four areas, which are compulsion in relation to the use of the preferred pronouns and modes of address of trans-identifying parties to court proceedings; the adoption of tenets of gender identity theory as if they were fact; the implementation of self- definition of ‘gender identity’ in court proceedings; and the lack of transparency about who contributes to the ETBB’s content. Some of these criticisms have been partially addressed in the new version of the ETBB, while others have not.

In August 2021 a group of practising lawyers and legal academics wrote to the Lord Chief Justice expressing concerns about the previous ETBB guidance. The Lord Chief Justice passed our letter to the ETBB’s Editorial Panel for consideration. The text of the letter set out below. Some signatories’ names have been removed because they did not want them made public.

The revised version of the ETBB has taken on board some of the concerns the letter raised, particularly in relation to the treatment of witnesses giving evidence about their experiences of sexual and domestic violence.

In relation to the use of preferred pronouns, the previous version of the ETBB, published in February 2021, stated:

‘‘It is important to respect a person’s gender identity by using appropriate terms of address, names and pronouns. Everyone is entitled to respect for their gender identity, private life and personal dignity.’’ (p. 325)

Neither the February 2021 version of the ETBB nor previous versions which included this requirement, provided any guidance about how it should be implemented in practice in relation to witnesses other than those who identify as transgender, or about how judges should treat witnesses who perceive defendants in terms of their sex rather than their ‘gender identity’.

Some judges interpreted the guidance as requiring them to compel witnesses to use the preferred pronouns of defendants and other parties to proceedings who identify as transgender. This had particularly serious implications for witnesses who were giving evidence about traumatic events, such as being subjected to physical and sexual violence. Previous versions of ETBB did not address the impact on these witnesses of being required to describe a defendant in criminal proceedings, or an alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse in family proceedings, in ways which amount to a denial of their own perceptions of reality. The potential impact of the earlier guidance on complainants in criminal trials is discussed in this journal article which I wrote in 2019.

This account of being instructed by a judge to use a defendant’s preferred pronouns was given by Maria MacLachlan, who was assaulted in 2017. One of her attackers, Tara Wolf, who self-defined as a ‘trans woman’, was convicted of assault by beating in April 2018.

The revised ETBB recognises for the first time that witnesses have a right to refer to trans-identifying people using pronouns which align with their biological sex, and acknowledges that there may be circumstances where this is required by the interests of justice.

Paragraph 26 of chapter 12 states,

“There may be situations where the rights of a witness to refer to a trans person by pronouns matching their gender assigned at birth, or to otherwise reveal a person’s trans status, clash with the trans person’s right to privacy. It is important to identify such potential difficulties in advance, preferably at a case management [1] stage, but otherwise at the outset of the hearing. A decision would then have to be made regarding how to proceed, bearing in mind factors such as:

…Why the witness is unwilling or unable to give evidence in a way which maintains the trans person’s privacy. For example, a victim of domestic abuse or sexual violence at the hands of a trans person may understandably describe the alleged perpetrator and use pronouns consistent with their gender assigned at birth because that is in accordance with the victim’s experience and perception of the events. Artificial steps such as requiring a victim to modify his/her language to disguise this risks interfering with his/her ability to give evidence of a traumatic event.”

There will be occasions when, after these and other relevant factors have been considered, the interests of justice require that a witness or party may refer to the trans person using their former pronouns or name.”

The guidance then cites the provisions relating to special measures for vulnerable and intimidated witnesses contained in the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and Domestic Abuse Act 2021. Previous versions of chapter 12 of the ETBB have not mentioned provisions relating to these groups of witnesses.

This amendment should mean that complainants giving evidence in trials for rape or other sexual offences will not be required to call male defendants ‘she’, and that women giving evidence in family proceedings about their experiences of domestic abuse will not be required to refer to their former male partners as though they were women.

The use of the language of rights in the amendment is significant. While this is an important step forward, many of the problems raised by the ETBB’s general guidance about the use of preferred pronouns are still not addressed in the new version. In practice witnesses’ ability to exercise their right to use pronouns which align with the sex of trans-identified parties to proceedings will be limited by the fact that the ETBB is likely to be interpreted to mean that the judge, the lawyers representing all parties in the proceedings, and perhaps other witnesses, should use preferred pronouns based on self-defined ’gender identity’. The ETBB does not discuss the implications for a witness of calling a trans-identified male ‘he’ while everyone else who speaks in the court room calls that person ‘she’. Where this happens it is likely to confuse and unnerve the witness, who may feel pressurised to use preferred pronouns themselves. This experience is likely to be particularly confusing and distressing for child witnesses and witnesses with learning disabilities.

In criminal proceedings this problem is likely to be compounded in cases where witnesses have already experienced the local police service and the Crown Prosecution Service referring to trans- identified defendants according to their ‘gender identity’ rather than their sex. Research carried out in 2019 by Fair Play for Women found that sixteen police services in England and Wales recorded the sex of suspects and offenders based on self-defined gender. Eight services confirmed in answer to a specific question relating to the offence of rape that they would record the sex of a rape suspect who identifies as transgender as female. In October 2021 it was reported that the Home Secretary intended to end these practices. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. The Crown Prosecution Service also operates a policy of recording the self-defined ‘gender’ of defendants.

In most respects the ETBB guidance makes no distinctions between people who identify as transgender who have obtained a Gender Recognition Certificate which changes their ‘gender’ in law, and those who have not. It has effectively introduced self-definition of ‘gender identity’ into the conduct of court proceedings, despite the fact that self-definition is not aligned with current law. This has not changed in the new guidance.

Another criticism of the previous ETBB was that it was partisan and adopted many of the tenets of gender identity theory as if they were matters of fact rather than opinion. This is discussed in depth in a Policy Exchange publication written in 2021 by Thomas Chacko, who also discusses the approach to self-identification in some detail.

The revised version of the ETBB continues to use language founded in gender identity theory which is widely contested, such as ‘gender assigned at birth’. Arguably, its overall approach remains imbued with gender identity theory, on which the implementation of self-definition of ‘gender identity’ is based.

The revised edition has clearly been influenced by the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) judgment in Forstater v CGD Europe and Ors(2021) in which it was held that gender critical beliefs are protected beliefs under the Equality Act 2010. It is somewhat more even-handed than previous editions, in that it gives a brief explanation of gender-critical beliefs, notes that they are protected, and acknowledges for the first time that there is a debate in this area. However, the ETBB’s framing of the Forstaterjudgment arguably expresses implicit bias.

While it notes that gender critical beliefs are protected, the revised edition does not explicitly state that this is the result of the decision in Forstater, except in its Appendix on the Equality Act. Its only clear reference to the judgment in Forstaterin chapter 12 relates to what the EAT said about ‘misgendering’.

At paragraph 78, the new ETBB states,

“‘Gender-critical’ is a phrase which, broadly speaking, refers to a belief that sex is immutable and binary, and that people cannot transition. Very often it is linked to concerns that allowing the definition of women to include trans women would make the concept of ‘women’ meaningless and undermine protection for vulnerable women and girls. There is also often concern about what is seen as potential encroachment into ‘safe spaces’. Feelings can run very strongly on both sides of this debate. Clearly the ETBB takes no sides on this matter. The ETBB’s concern is simply that judges have some understanding of the perspectives of the variety of litigants and witnesses who appear before them. Gender-critical beliefs (as long as they do not propose for example to destroy the rights of trans people) are protected beliefs even if they might offend or upset trans people (and others). However, holding a belief is different from behaviour. As explained in the well-publicised Forstater case, ‘misgendering’ a trans person on a particular occasion, gratuitously or otherwise, can amount to unlawful harassment in arenas covered by the Equality Act 2010.”

The ETBB omits to note that the EAT reiterated that the position at common law as established in Corbett v Corbett (orse Ashley)[1971] P 83 is that sex is immutable (para.115), and that the Tribunal also stated that,

“…it is relevant to note, and it was not in dispute before us, that the Claimant’s belief is shared by many others.” (para.52)

Forstater is a landmark case in relation to the protection of gender critical beliefs which has significant implications for the treatment of witnesses who are gender critical or who do not share what the EAT in Forstatercalled “gender identity belief” (para.108). Given the significances of this case, a more neutral summary of the EAT’s judgment, and an exploration of its implications in relation to judicial attempts to require witnesses to use the preferred pronouns and modes of address of trans-identified parties in court proceedings, might have been expected.

The ETBB’s introduction of de factoself-definition of ‘gender identity’ happened without public consultation, and the process by which the ETBB guidance is developed is not open to public scrutiny. Melanie Newman reported in the Law Society Gazette in 2020 that the Judicial College had refused to identify the external organisations involved in training and policy formulation in relation to the ETBB. The Judicial College takes the view that it holds information about judicial training on behalf of the judiciary, and therefore this information is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Such lack of transparency creates an environment which is vulnerable to policy capture.

The fact that the Panel has considered our letter to the Lord Chief Justice and taken some of its concerns into account is an encouraging sign of increasing openness to a wider range of opinion. Perhaps there is hope that before the next edition of the guidance the Judicial College will develop a more transparent process for producing it.

Letter to the Lord Chief Justice

The Right Honourable

The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales Royal Courts of Justice




27th August 2021

Dear Lord Chief Justice,

The Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book

We are a group of practising lawyers and legal academics. We are writing in a personal capacity to express our concerns about the implications for witnesses in both criminal and civil proceedings of the guidance on ‘Trans People’ in chapter 12 of the Judicial College’s Equal Treatment Bench Book.

Judges are interpreting this guidance as requiring them to compel witnesses to use the preferred pronouns of defendants who identify as transgender. We are particularly concerned about the implications of this guidance for adult and child complainants at criminal trials relating to violent and sexual offence, and for parties in family proceedings who are giving evidence about their experiences of domestic abuse.

The Bench Book states,

‘‘It is important to respect a person’s gender identity by using appropriate terms of address, names and pronouns.’’ (page 325)

No guidance is given about how this requirement should be carried out in practice in relation to witnesses other than those who identify as transgender, or about how judges should treat witnesses who perceive defendants in terms of their sex rather than their ‘‘gender identity’’. The guidance is written as if the use of a defendant’s preferred pronouns is simply a neutral administrative matter which will have no detrimental effects on witnesses, or on court proceedings.

This has particularly serious implications for witnesses who are giving evidence about traumatic events, such as being subjected to physical and sexual violence. The Bench Book guidance does not address the impact on these witnesses of being required to describe a defendant in criminal proceedings, or an alleged perpetrator of domestic abuse in family proceedings, in ways which amount to a denial of their own perceptions of reality. This is despite the fact that special measures which recognise the particular difficulties which these witnesses may face in giving evidence at court are provided in section 16 and 17 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 in relation to criminal proceedings, and in sections 63 and 64 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 in relation to victims of domestic abuse giving evidence in family and other civil proceedings.

The account below was given by Maria MacLachlan, who was assaulted in 2017. One of her attackers, Tara Wolf, who self-defines as a ‘trans woman’, was convicted of assault by beating in April 2018. MacLachlan has stated:

‘‘My experience of court was much worse than the assault…I was asked ‘‘as a matter of courtesy’’ to refer to my assailant as either ‘‘she’’ or the ‘‘defendant’’. I have never been able to think of any of my assailants as women because, at the time of the assault, they all looked and behaved very much like men and I had no idea any of them identified as women… I tried to refer to him as the ‘‘the defendant’’ but using a noun instead of a pronoun is an unnatural way to speak. It was while I was having to relive the assault and answer questions about it while watching it on video that I skipped back to using ‘‘he’’ and earned a rebuke from the judge. I responded that I thought of the defendant ‘‘who is male, as a male’’. The judge never explained why I was expected to be courteous to the person who had assaulted me or why I wasn’t allowed to narrate what had happened from my own perspective, given that I was under oath.’’ (Julie Moss, ‘Interview: Maria MacLachlan on the GRA and the aftermath of her assault at Speakers’ Corner’, Feminist Current, 21 June 2018, speakers-corner/)

The authors of the Bench Bookappear not to have considered the inter-action between its guidance and guidance in Achieving Best Evidence in Criminal Proceedings(ABE). ABE states that judges have a responsibility to ensure that all witnesses are enabled to give their best evidence, and that that they must strike a balance under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights between protecting the defendant’s right to a fair trial and ensuring that witnesses are enabled to give evidence to the best of their ability. It requires judges to “…have regard to the reasonable interests of witnesses, particularly those who are in court to give distressing evidence, as they are entitled to be protected from avoidable distress in doing so.’’ (p.134)

The logic of the Bench Bookguidance is that a complainant in a rape trial can be required to call a defendant who has raped her (or him) ‘‘she’’, and to use female possessive pronouns to refer to the defendant’s body parts. This could also apply to child witnesses and vulnerable adult witnesses. The guidance does not consider how a child or an adult with learning disabilities might experience an instruction from an authority figure like a judge to refer to a biological male as ‘‘she’’. The right to accurately describe the sex of those who have assaulted them is crucially important to the ability of victims of violent and sexual offences to report violence and give evidence at court. Compelling witnesses to describe a defendant in ways which amount to a denial of their own perceptions of reality therefore undermines access to justice.

The use of pronouns and forms of address which reflect a person’s ‘gender identity’ rather than their sex is not simply a matter of social courtesy. For many people it is an expression of a political belief with which they profoundly disagree, and which they consider to be harmful to the rights of women, and to society as a whole. The Bench Bookguidance is effectively promoting the imposition of a form of compelled speech, which is an infringement of witnesses’ rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of expression, under articles 9 and 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights respectively. Both these articles protect the right not to be obliged to manifest beliefs that one does not hold, as stated in the case of Lee v Ashers Baking Co[2018] UKSC 49. The right not to be compelled to express a political belief is well established in the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

The courts have an obligation to balance the rights of defendants and witnesses in criminal trials, and to balance the rights of parties to civil proceedings. However, the Bench Book guidance prioritises the wishes and feelings of those who identify as transgender and includes no guidance for judges about balancing rights. The use of this guidance potentially impedes witnesses’ ability to give accurate and coherent evidence, particularly where giving evidence requires them to recall traumatic events. This cannot reasonably be said to be a proportionate means of achieving the Bench Book’sstated aims, and therefore its interference with witnesses’ Convention rights is not justified.

The Bench Bookguidance appears to be founded on what the Employment Appeal Tribunal in Forstater v CGD Europe and others(UKEAT/0105/20/JOJ) described as ‘gender identity belief’ (paragraph 108). This is the belief that ‘’everyone has a gender identity which may be different to their sex at birth and which effectively trumps sex so that trans men are men and transwomen are women’’ (paragraph 107). The Tribunal found that the Claimant’s lack of ‘gender identity belief’ was protected under Article 9 (1) ECHR and therefore within section 10 Equality Act 2010; as was her ‘gender-critical belief’, the core of which is that sex is biologically immutable (paragraphs 14 and 15). The Tribunal noted that this belief is in accordance with the current law (paragraph 115), and is shared by many people (paragraph 52).

The Bench Bookguidance is not aligned with the Gender Recognition Act’s provisions relating to the recognition of ‘gender identity’. It states that,

“It should be possible to recognise a person’s gender identity…for nearly all court and tribunal purposes regardless of whether they have obtained legal recognition of their gender by way of a Gender Recognition Certificate.’’ (page 326)

This effectively introduces self-definition of ‘gender identity’ into the conduct of court proceedings. However, such self-definition has not been incorporated into law in this jurisdiction. Proposals to amend the Gender Recognition Act to incorporate self-definition have been the subject of a public consultation, following which the government decided not to introduce these proposals into law. In advising judges to incorporate self-definition of ‘gender identity’ into the conduct of court proceedings, the Bench Book effectively advises judges to go beyond the law.

The Bench Book’s approach has been introduced without public consultation, and in the absence of any established public consensus. The Law Society Gazette has reported that, when asked to identify the organisations who assisted in the development of this guidance, the Judicial College stated that it was “not in the public interest to make public the names of those involved in this work.’’ (Melanie Newman, ‘Warning over transgender guidance to judges’, The Law Society Gazette, 24 February 2020, judges/5103196.article).

We find this lack of transparency about the influences on such an important document very concerning, particularly as the document is not aligned with current law.

There appears to be increasing concern about the Bench Book’s guidance in this area outside of the legal profession, such that the think tank Policy Exchange has recently published a document written by barrister Thomas Chacko which suggests the guidance is in need of urgent revision. We attach a copy of this publication.

We ask that a review of this guidance be conducted with a view to amending it to ensure that it reflects the law, and that it takes account of the obligation to achieve an appropriate balance between the rights of all witnesses in court proceedings.

Yours sincerely,

Rosemary Auchmuty, Professor of Law

Sue Bruce, Solicitor

Thomas Chacko, Barrister

Naomi Cunningham, Barrister

Peter Daly, Solicitor

Eileen Fingleton, Solicitor

Francis Hoar, Barrister

Belinda Lester, Solicitor

Audrey Ludwig, Solicitor

Helen Nettleship, Barrister

Maureen O’Hara, Senior Lecturer in Law

Peter Ramsay, Professor of Criminal Law

Angela Smith, Solicitor

Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law

[1]  A case management conference (civil law) or hearing (criminal law) is essentially a meeting which takes place before the main court proceedings between the allocated judge and lawyers for the parties, where decisions are made about various aspects of the conduct of the case.