Article 7: No punishment without law

05 January 2012
Author: 
Sabina Frediani, Campaigns Co-Ordinator

This final entry in our blog series explaining and exploring the intricacies of the Human Rights Act focuses on Article 7 of the legislation – no punishment without law. This Article provides vital safeguards against arbitrary prosecution, conviction and punishment.

Article 7 protects everyone from being found guilty of committing an act that wasn’t actually a crime at the time. This is also known as the prohibition of ‘retrospective criminalisation’, and it’s a hugely important principle for the very concept of the Rule of Law.

Quite simply, behaviour must only be punished it if breaks pre-dated legislation. Parliament must not pass new laws which make criminal offences of actions carried out in the past. However, this doesn’t extend to criminal offences recognised by international law at the time they were committed, such as war crimes and genocide etc.

There must also be certainty around any applicable punishments imposed for criminal conduct. Anyone found guilty of a crime cannot be handed a harsher penalty than the one applicable at the time of the offence itself. So if at the time committed the maximum penalty was a one-year jail term, but by the time someone is sentenced it has increased to two years, the court should impose no more than one year in prison.

Finally, Article 7 also requires that criminal offences are clearly defined, so that everyone knows what kind of behaviour might mean they’re breaking the law. This makes perfect sense – the law must be easily understandable so people are completely clear whether or not what they’re doing is illegal.

So, that's it for the series! We have now dealt with all of the Articles contained within the Human Rights Act. Hopefully you've enjoyed reading the entries as much as we have loved writing them. If you missed any, you can go back and read them now - they're all right here on the Liberty blog. And once you've done that, you can continue supporting our Common Values campaign by reading about some of the HRA myths on our dedicated truth and illusion page.