How Attainder Works

A somewhat outdated concept, attainder is foreign to the modern mind. Today, our strong sense that civil rights is absolute. Attainder involves the nullification—the cancellation—of a person's rights. It is involved in legislation surrounding the death penalty in some countries, but increasingly governments have been moving away from this practice. In the USA, for example, those on death row still have rights – death is simply the punishment for their offense(s).

The US steers away from attainder because it is considered dangerous to revoke someone's civil rights at any time, even if they are to be executed. Doing so opens up the potential for serious abuse to occur on the loophole that this person is "no longer human." Also, there is the question of what happens if a person who had their rights nullified turns out to be innocent?

Although many governments still have the power to pass bills of attainder, they choose not to. Not even the most brazen politician wants to be seen to be taking away anyone's human rights. Therefore, the "bill of attainder" remains on the record books of many different constitutions around the world, somewhat redundant.

Example of Attainder

If we say, hypothetically, the government passed a bill of attainder in your name at a time when it still occurred in history, your life would change dramatically. Usually, this would be in response to an extremely serious crime, such as treason, but it wouldn't really matter whether you are guilty or not. Your right to a fair trial has been removed.

As a result, your life would become fearful and incredibly dangerous, as you would be under the constant threat of violence or arrest. In England, significant bills of attainder were passed by none other than Henry VIII, notorious as he is. So it is likely that you have the armies of the Crown coming after you.

If you somehow escaped this, then you would continue to be forced to live on the fringes of society, exiled. You have no legally recognized rights nor ability to own property—you are permanently homeless. This would have been the reality for someone who was issued with a bill of attainder.

History Of Attainder

Governments have used attainder throughout history. However, its heyday was when Kings and Queens were still in command, and society was less democratic and fair. As mentioned, monarchs would often use them to bring down personal or political enemies, obviously with total impunity. However, bills of attainder have also been passed through parliaments throughout history.

The exception to this is the United States. The constitution itself expressly forbids "any bill of attainder" and so does the constitution of every state. However, other countries that are allowed to pass bills of attainder have sometimes tried to. This has happened twice in Canada unsuccessfully. There were two cases in the late 20th century. The more famous one being of serial killer Richard Olson in 1984.