How might this right be relevant to my life?
Some examples of when this right might be at risk include:
- Being punished (e.g. fined or detained in prison) for doing something that wasn’t against the law when you did it.
- Being given a heavier punishment for committing a crime than the punishment agreed at the time the crime was committed.
- Laws and regulations being so complex, vague or inconsistent that it becomes unclear what is a crime and what is not. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Joint Committee on Human Rights reiterated the need for law and guidance about lockdown rules to be clearly and consistently communicated in order to comply with our right not to be punished for something that wasn't against the law when we did it.
Can my right not to be punished for something that wasn't against the law when I did it 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.
However, the Human Rights Act does make an exception for acts that are against “the guiding principles of law recognised by civilised nations” even if they were not against the law in the country they took place at the time. This means that war crimes and crimes against humanity can still be prosecuted.
Rights in action
Compared with other rights in the Human Rights Act, there are very few examples of when the courts have found that this right has been breached in the UK. But, the law does change sometimes and new criminal offences can be introduced. Therefore it is important to think about when this right could be relevant to you.
Imagine you are living in Scotland and out for a walk. You get to a pelican crossing where you see that a red man is showing, meaning it isn't safe for you to cross over. But, the roads are quiet and you don't see any cars coming, so you decide it is safe to cross over anyway. At the time of writing this, crossing the road when you see a red man isn't illegal in Scotland, although it isn't very safe to do it. You cross the road and go about your day.
Two weeks later, a new law is introduced saying it is now illegal for people to cross at a pelican crossing when a red man is showing. The police say they are going to look at all the CCTV from the past month to find out who has crossed a pelican crossing at a red man. They identify you as someone who has done this, and they give you a fine for it. Because you did something before it became a criminal offence, being punished for it would be a breach of your Article 7 right.