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SUN Campaign History - Apr 1998

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The Legal Position - April '98 solicitors advice to nudists

In April 1998 we were fortunate enough to obtain a considerable amount of advice from a solicitor, which follows.

"Nudity per se is not a criminal offence in English Law, but some of the offences you might be alleged to have committed whilst nude are as follows:

  • The Vagrancy Act of 1824 provides that every person who wilfully, openly, lewdly and obscenely exposes his person with intent to insult a female shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond and liable to imprisonment therefore for a period of three months.
  • The Town Police Clauses Act of 1847 provides that every person who wilfully and indecently exposes his person in a street to the annoyance of residents or passengers shall be guilty of an offence and liable for up to 14 days' imprisonment. In this case there is no need for a female to be insulted.
  • The Public Health Acts Amendment Act of 1907 extends the definition of street, for the 1847 offence, to include "any place of public resort of recreation ground belonging to, or under the control of a local authority, and any unfenced ground adjoining to or abutting upon any street in an urban district".
  • A Public Nuisance is an offence at Common Law. Stones Justices Manual states "A public nuisance is such an inconvenient or troublesome offence as annoys the community in general etc." It goes on to give examples as "...So is an indecent exposure of the person in a public omnibus, in the view of persons travelling therein; or on the roof of the back of a house, so as to be visible to persons in the back premises of many other houses, and it is not necessary that the exposure should be on the public highway. It may be at a spot where the public are in the habit of trespassing without interference, although not a public place. More than one person at least must have been able to see the act of indecency complained of, but actual disgust or annoyance on the part of an observer need not be proved."
  • The Public Order Act of 1986 (and this is one very often used by the police where they find difficulty in finding an appropriate offence) provides that a person shall be guilty of an offence if he uses ... insulting words or behaviour ... within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment alarm or distress thereby. The offence may be committed in a public or private place.

Interestingly, most of the law concerns the penis, and the position with regard to women is less clear. Our adviser suspects that, historically, women have not been thought of as sexual, or at least possessing visible sexual organs.

On the question of nude sunbathing, the position is less clear. The right to sunbathe, or picnic on someone's land, whether clothed or nude, has never been tested in a Court of Law. The real question is, if you sunbathe nude on National Trust land, can you be prosecuted for a criminal offence? Can the National Trust take steps to stop you? Subject to any easements, the National Trust are entitled to include or exclude anyone from their land in much the same way as you and I are' entitled to include or exclude anyone from our gardens. However, they may not touch you. The real point is that the National Trust do not wish to exclude people as a whole from the beach: indeed, it may be that if you were to join the National Trust that you would be exercising your rights as members.

The National Trust might set up a barrier at the entrance, or at least a notional one (bearing in mind that there are countless access points as well as access from the sea) and only let in those wearing clothes and leave the naked ones to complain and take Civil action. Their problem is that we do not get out of our cars naked and we are normally clothed until we reach our sunbathing point.

If you are questioned by a National Trust employee there is no reason for you to give him your name. It is worth saying, if he tries to order you to move, "No, I am not prepared to move from where I am. I believe that I have a prescriptive right, established over very many years, to be here. I must warn you that if you try to interfere with me physically in any way then, unless you can prove that I have committed an arrestable offence, I will not hesitate to take legal proceedings against you for trespass to the person and assault and battery as may be appropriate". If the National Trust try to say that they own the area and you must do as you are told, you could say to them "If you believe that I am not entitled to be here, then I suggest you go to a Court of Law and attempt to obtain an injunction to prevent me from coming here". DO NOT GIVE YOUR NAME OR OTHERWISE IDENTIFY YOURSELF.

On the other hand, our adviser can see no way of preventing the employees of the owners of the land from sitting next to you and saying unpleasant things about you. (At this point, our adviser makes a very interesting comment - but to reveal it NOW would be to show our hand too early.)

It has always been the case that private organisations (football clubs being the prime example) can ask for the police to patrol, and they have to pay the police to do so. However, the powers of the police in Civil law are no greater than those of National Trust employees. Notwithstanding that limitation, the police, if they believe a criminal offence is being committed, may be able to report you for prosecution and take names and addresses, etc. They cannot order you to move inside the red posts but they might say, if they consider an offence is being committed, that if you move inside the red posts they would take no action. (Of course, if you've got the bottle, you could say to them "Prove it" But they might drag you off to Swanage Police Station and I'll leave the rest to your imagination.) What is really needed, our adviser says is some test cases!

Our adviser does not believe there is any duty or obligation enshrined in law generally to help the police. However, this depends on each set of circumstances and it is probably not worth refusing to give your name to the police - but ensure they and you are not within earshot of any National Trust employees.

Our adviser, who is a member of SUN, spent a great deal of his own time preparing this advice, and we are extremely grateful to him for that. Especially as he tells us that Criminal Law is not one of his specialities. Let me end by quoting from the very beginning of his letter:

"The basic premise in English Law, from at least the standpoint of SUN, is that you can do anything, but you have to take the consequences of what you do."


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