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Pleading “Nulla Poena Sine Lege” under Criminal Law

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In criminal law, the Latin maxim “nulla poena sine lege” reigns supreme, embodying the principle of legality that underpins the very fabric of our justice system. This age-old doctrine, enshrined in Article 28 of Uganda’s 1995 Constitution, as amended in 2018, decrees that “no punishment except in accordance with the law” shall be meted out to any individual. In essence, this principle ensures that criminal liability is predicated on a clear breach of a specific provision in the written statutes, thereby safeguarding the rights of the accused and upholding the rule of law.

The Nulla Poena Sine Lege principle, as upheld in the landmark case of R v Knuller (1971) 3 ALL ER 314, draws a critical distinction between moral and legal wrongs. While an act may be deemed morally reprehensible, it is only punishable if it contravenes a specific legal provision. This nuanced approach ensures that the law does not overreach, and individuals are not penalized for actions that, although deemed immoral, are not explicitly prohibited by law.

The significance of Nulla Poena Sine Lege lies in its far-reaching implications for the criminal justice system. By vesting the power to create offenses solely in the parliament, as enshrined in Article 28(7, 8, and 12) of the Constitution, this principle prevents the arbitrary creation of crimes and ensures that laws operate prospectively, not retrospectively. Moreover, it safeguards fundamental rights and principles by requiring courts to adopt a conservative approach to statutory interpretation, thereby protecting rights to property, personal liberty, freedom of expression, and access to courts of law.

In conclusion, the Nulla Poena Sine Lege principle stands as a sentinel of criminal justice, ensuring that punishment is only meted out in accordance with the law. As we navigate the complexities of the criminal justice system, this age-old doctrine reminds us that the law must always be our guiding light, upholding the rights of the accused and the rule of law.


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Mwanje Gideon
Mwanje Gideon
Mwanje Gideon, also known as Batapa is a student of Law at Nkumba University driven by a fervent ambition to contribute significantly to the legal jurisprudence in Uganda. Mwanje channels his wealth of knowledge through diverse presentations, articles and books. He has transversed several leadership symposiums, and conferences, the most recent one being the 28th East African Law Society Conference in the Capital-Bujumbura. Beyond the confines of law classes and authorship, He currently serves as the President of the Uganda Law Students Association, Nkumba University Law Society and Nkumba University the School of Law Research Club


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