Corbett v Corbett

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Corbett v Corbett, a case heard in November and December 1969 with a February 1971 decision, is a divorce case which set a legal precedent regarding the status of transgender women in the United Kingdom. It was brought at a time when the UK did not recognise mutual consent as reason enough to dissolve a marriage, and Arthur Corbett, the plaintiff, sought a method of dissolving his marriage to the model April Ashley, who had brought a petition under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1965 for maintenance.

His case was brought under the premise that Ashley was a man despite her change of gender. The Court ruled that the marriage was void ab initio. A very full range of medical opinion on transgender people was consulted by the Court. John Randell, the man who set up the first transgender clinic at Charing Cross hospital, stated that Ashley was ‘properly classified as a male homosexual transsexulist’ whilst other court doctors preferred the description castrated male. [1] The judge (Lord Justice Ormrod, who was himself a medical man) created a medical 'test' and definition to determine the legal status of April Ashley. Ormrod set out four criteria for determining 'sex': (i) Chromosomal factors; (ii) Gonadal factors (i.e. presence or absence of testes or ovaries); (iii) Genital factors (including internal sex organs); (iv) Psychological factors. Transsexualism was deemed to fall under 'Psychological factors'.

The Court ruled that it was impossible to change sex and plainly distinguished legal statuses for which gender, which could change, was appropriate (National Insurance) from those for which sex was the determining category, among which marriage was the most prominent, it being stated that marriage was necessarily between a man and a woman (both defined according to sex rather than gender). The ruling was then taken up and used to define the sex of transgender people for many purposes until the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 (which ultimately defined the sex of transgender people as whatever is on their birth certificate, until such point as a Gender Recognition Certificate amends the birth certificate; hence for those who do not possess such a certificate, nothing has changed since 1970).

As a result of Justice Ormrod's decision, unofficial amendments of birth certificates for transgender and intersex people ceased.

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  1. ^ Shopland, Norena ' I have a certain amount of regrettable notoriety’ from Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales, Seren Books, 2017

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