R v Brown - Case Summary

University / Undergraduate
Modified: 22nd Feb 2024
Wordcount: 705 words


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Legal Case Summary

Summary: An unprecedented UK case regarding consent in BDSM activities where the defendants were convicted of assault offences.


In the case of R v Brown, the defendants, a group of gay men, were charged with various offences under sections 20 and 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. They had voluntarily and consensually engaged in several acts of sadomasochistic sex, including genital torture, over a ten-year period. The details of these acts were recorded on video tapes found in the possession of one of the defendants. The men did not inflict injuries of a permanent nature, and no medical assistance was sought or required following these acts.

The gathering, preparation, and carrying out of these acts were organised primarily at the home of one the participants. No complaints were filed with the police, and the case was brought to their attention incidentally during an investigation for unrelated matters.


The primary issue of the case was whether consent can be a valid defence to charges under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The House of Lords was compelled to decide whether participants could legally consent to activities inflicting harm leading to actual bodily injury or more serious injury, even in the context of private sexual acts between consenting adults.

The defendant’s competence, the reliability of their consent, and the nature of the harm inflicted in these consensual acts were legal issues of contention, as consent had previously been held as a defence to non-sexual common assault and battery.


R v Brown remains an influential case in criminal law because it established a precedent that consent could not be used as a defence in cases of actual bodily harm, even when the participants willingly engaged in the activities. It has sparked ongoing debate about the right to personal autonomy, the limits of consent, and the criminalisation of certain sexual practices.

The decision cases relating to consensual harm, such as R v Wilson (1996), where branding within a martial relationship was distinguished from the activities in Brown. The case continues to generate discussions over the state’s role in regulating private sexual behaviour.


By a 3:2 majority, the House of Lords held that the defendants' consents to the acts of sadomasochistic sex did not constitute a defence to the charges. The majority ruled that the defendants' convictions were correct as a matter of law since consent is not a valid defence to actual bodily harm or wounding charges. Their acts were viewed not in the context of private sexual acts, but as violations of public decency and an affront to public order.

An important factor that influenced the decision was the severity of the injuries inflicted. Despite consent, the acts were considered unlawful as they resulted in harm above the threshold of trifling or transient injury.


  • Ashworth, A. 1993. 'Article : The Scope of Criminal Liability for Omissions', Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 335-359.
  • Casey, P. 1993. 'Torture and Public Policy: An Approach to the “Gentle Civilizer of Nations”,' Boston College International & Comparative Law Review, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 99-130.

Journalist Brief

In R v Brown, a group of men were found guilty of assault for carrying out consensual activities that resulted in bodily harm. Despite the men's consent, the court ruled that such consent couldn't be used as a defence against charges of actual bodily harm. This controversial decision remains influential, highlighting the limits of consent and sparking debates on personal autonomy and the regulation of private sexual behaviour.


What was the main legal issue in R v Brown?

Answer: The main legal issue was whether consent can be used as a defence in cases of actual bodily harm.

Did the men in R v Brown give consent?

Answer: Yes, they gave their consent, but the court ruled that consent couldn't negate criminal liability in cases involving actual bodily harm.

What was the significance of R v Brown?

Answer: It set a critical legal precedent that consent cannot be used as a defence in cases of actual bodily hurt, influencing the legal approach to consensual harm, especially in concerned with sexual practices.

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