Rape of wife now recognized in English law

October 24, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- In England, at last, a wife has the legal right to say no.

The House of Lords gave her that right yesterday by finally repudiating a 255-year-old judicial principle that stated a man could not be guilty of raping his wife.

The announcement of the final vote by the five law lords triggered an outburst of cheers and celebration among women who had gathered in the public gallery of the House of Lords to await the decision.

"The law lords have finally nailed a legal lie which has somehow survived for nearly three centuries," said Claire Glasman of Women Against Rape.

"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."

The five law lords cited decisions written by English judges in 1736, 1803 and 1822.

The first jurist to put it on paper was Sir Matthew Hale, who wrote: "But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given herself up in this kind unto her husband which she cannot retract."

Yesterday, the law lords wrote: "It may be taken that the proposition was generally regarded as an accurate statement of the common law of England. The common law is, however, capable of evolving in the light of changing social, economic and cultural developments."

Having said that, they overthrew the principle.

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