The Human Rights Act formally abolished the death penalty in the UK. This means that a public official, including the police or courts, cannot execute someone or sentence them to death as punishment for something they have done. This applies in all circumstances, including during peacetime and times of conflict. The death penalty is sometimes referred to as capital punishment.
Sentencing a person to death is considered to be a violation of the right to life (Article 2) and the right to freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3), which are both also protected under the Human Rights Act.
The Human Rights Act also means that the UK cannot extradite people (that is, deport people to stand trial in another country), if there is a real risk that they could be sentenced to death or executed.
Can my right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment be restricted by a public official?
No. This right is an absolute right, which means it cannot be restricted or interfered with by public officials under any circumstances.
Rights in action
The last execution in the UK took place in August 1964. The following year, Parliament passed a law suspending the death penalty across Great Britain (this did not extend to Northern Ireland) for all crimes except high treason, “piracy with violence”, arson in royal dockyards, and espionage. It was only with the Human Rights Act coming into force in 1998 that the death penalty was banned under UK law in all circumstances.
The UK is a member state of the Council of Europe which drafted the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. The Council of Europe has made abolition of the death penalty a prerequisite of membership. As a result, nobody has been executed in any of the Council of Europe’s member states since 1997.
The UK has since renewed its commitment to opposing the death penalty. In February 2021, the UK International Ambassador for Human Rights delivered a statement saying, “The UK believes that the use of the death penalty undermines human dignity; any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable and there is no conclusive evidence of it working as a deterrent to crime.”