Debevoise & Plimpton partner and former U.K. attorney general Lord Goldsmith QC has agreed to represent, on a pro bono basis, a gay couple seeking to overturn Singapore’s ban on male homosexual sex.
Section 377A of Singapore’s penal code criminalizes sexual conduct between men. Though the government has said it will not actively enforce the law, activists have argued that that provides inadequate protection to Singapore gays.
Kenneth Chew and Gary Lim last year brought a suit challenging the constitutionality of Section 377A, but a judge upheld it in an April decision stating that Singapore’s parliament should decide the issue, not the courts.
Chew and Lim are now appealing that decision and have sought court permission for Lord Goldsmith to act for them alongside KhattarWong litigation head Deborah Barker, a Singapore senior counsel.
Lord Goldsmith served as attorney general in the cabinet of former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair. He joined Debevoise in 2007 and is the firm’s litigation head for Europe and Asia.
"In all the controversy about gay marriage we should not forget that there are still over 70 countries in the world where homosexuality is still illegal and gay (and sometimes women) men live under the threat of prosecution and imprisonment," Goldsmith said in a statement. "Decriminalising homosexuality is perhaps the last great human and civil rights issue."
Senior foreign lawyers are permitted to appear in Singapore courts when they have particular expertise or when suitable local counsel is unavailable. In May, Lord Goldsmith led a Debevoise team that challenged the constitutionality of a law criminalizing homosexuality in Belize. The Belize Supreme Court has yet to rule on the case, which Debevoise also handled pro bono.
Singapore and Malaysia are the only two major economies in Asia where homosexuality remains illegal. Though many in Singapore believe 377A is increasingly out of step with attitudes in the West and elsewhere in the region, a substantial religious conservative movement has vocally opposed the law's repeal.
Updated, 7/11/13: This story has been updated from an earlier version to include comment from Lord Goldsmith QC.