Article 7: No punishment without law

We can’t be found guilty of a crime if it wasn’t against the law when it was committed – and the Government must make clear which actions are crime.

This right, protected by Article 7, means that:

  • No one can be found guilty of a crime that was not a crime under the law at the time it was committed, and
  • Anyone found guilty of a criminal offence cannot have a heavier penalty imposed on them the penalty that was applicable at the time they committed the crime.

Under this right, crimes and penalties can only be set by law. Relevant laws must be clearly defined so people know which acts are criminal.

Retrospective offences

It is fundamental to the rule of law that behaviour is only punished if it breaks a law that predates the offending behaviour. 

Article 7 provides protections against arbitrary prosecution, conviction and punishment. 

However, this prohibition does not apply to criminal offences that were recognised by international law at the time they were committed. 

This is intended to capture war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, which remain punishable in UK courts even if committed before they were specific offences in domestic law.

Fair and just penalties

The Government must make clear what penalties can be imposed for criminal behaviour.

Article 7 also requires that any favourable changes to sentencing laws or practices that have been made since a crime was committed and a final judgment given must be applied.

Tiit Veeber’s story

In 1995, the owner of a company in Estonia – Tiit Veeber – was charged with tax evasion relating to alleged forgery and fabrication of documents between 1993 and 1994.

The charges were brought under legislation that only came into force in January 1995. While the activities were regulated before this date, they were only subject to criminal sanction if somebody had first been handed an administrative sanction for a similar matter.

Mr Veeber hadn’t been subject to administrative sanction previously – so under the law in force at the time the conduct took place, he could not expect a criminal conviction. 

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that there had been a breach of Article 7 as the 1995 law had been applied retrospectively.