17 years ago, the Human Rights Act became law in the UK and we think that's worth celebrating!

To mark the occasion, over 17 days we are 'unwrapping' the Human Rights Act - with information & stories, we'll be sharing how the Act works and how it makes a difference. Many of the stories include examples taken from BIHR's work with people, community groups and public services.

Article 7: Right not to be punished for something which wasn't against the law when you did it 

The Human Rights Act protects your right not to be punished for something which wasn't against the law when you did it 

This means that you can't be found guilty and punished for something which wasn't a crime when you did it. It also means that if you are found guilty of an offence (which was against the law when you did it), the penalty can't be more severe than what was applicable at the time the crime was committed. 

It is because of this right that public authorities must make it clear what is an offence and against the law. Criminal offences cannot be vague but must be clearly defined in law.   

In practice, this means that people who have been convicted of historical criminal offences will be sentenced according to the penalty at the time (not what it is now). 

This right is absolute, and cannot be restricted. There is one exception, however, for actions that are against international law, so that war crimes or crimes against humanity can still be prosecuted. 

In real life: Right not to be punished for something which wasn't against the law when you did it 

Criminal law can still be clarified

After Shaun was found guilty of marital rape, he took a case to court arguing that he was prosecuted after the act became a crime, in violation of his right to no punishment without law. At the time, there was still an exception in the law which meant that marriage meant consent.

The court, however, rejected this argument. The court ruled that because Shaun should have known that the law on marital rape was changing and that it was reasonably foreseeable that they would be prosecuted. Therefore, Shaun's right to not be punished for something which wasn't against the law when he did it, had not been violated. From this case, the court clarified that criminal law can be clarified, ‘provided that the resultant development is consistent with the essence of the offence and could reasonably be foreseen’.

(SW v UK, 1995) 

Penalties can't be heavier than when you committed the crime (but they don't have to be the same)

Robbie was convicted of a number of sexual offences, including rape, and was sentenced to twelve years in prison. After serving two-thirds of his sentence, he was released and was subject to licence conditions for one year. 

At the time that Robbie had committed the offences, the legal provisions would have meant that he would have been released without conditions. Robbie took a case to court and argued that the licence conditions meant he had received a heavier penalty than the penalties which were applicable at the time the offences were committed. Robbie argued that this was a breach of his right to no punishment without law. 

The UK's highest court disagreed, and said that his human rights would only have been breached if the sentence had exceeded the maximum penalty which could have been imposed under the law at the time. At the time Robbie committed the offence, the maximum sentence for rape was life imprisonment. The right to no punishment without law was intended to ensure that people aren't punished more heavily than the maximum penalty at the time of the offence - not to make sure that the penalty was exactly the same. In Robbie's case, the fact that he was subject to licence conditions did not mean that the sentence was heavier, considering the maximum sentence for rape was life imprisonment. 

(R v Secretary of State for the Home Department, 2004)