Attainder (from the Old French ateindre, to attain, i.e. to strike, accuse, condemn; Latin attingere, tangere, to touch; the meaning has been greatly affected by the confusion with French taindre, teindre, to taint, stain, Latin tangere, to dye), in English law, was the immediate and inseparable consequence from the common law upon the sentence of death. When it was clear beyond all dispute that the criminal was no longer fit to live he was called attaint, and could not, before the Evidence Act 1843, be a witness in any court. This attainder took place after judgment of death, or upon such circumstances as were equivalent to judgment of death, such as judgment of outlawry on a capital crime, pronounced for absconding from justice. Conviction without judgment was not followed by attainder.
The consequences of attainder were (1) forfeiture, (2) corruption of blood. On attainder for treason, the criminal forfeited to the crown his lands, rights of entry on lands, and any interest he might have in lands for his own life or a term of years. For murder, the offender forfeited to the crown the profit of his freeholds during life, and in the case of lands held in fee-simple, the lands themselves for a year and a day; subject to this, the lands escheated to the lord of the fee. These forfeitures related back to the time of the offence committed. Forfeitures of goods and chattels ensued not only on attainder, but on conviction for a felony of any kind, or on flight from justice, and had no relation backwards to the time of the offence committed. By corruption of blood, "both upwards and downwards", the attainted person could neither inherit nor transmit lands. The lands escheated to the lord of the fee, subject to the crown's right of forfeiture.
The doctrine of attainder has, however, ceased to be of much importance. The Forfeiture Act 1870 enacted that henceforth no confession, verdict, inquest, conviction or judgment of or for any treason or felony, or felo de se, should cause any attainder or corruption of blood, or any forfeiture or escheat. Sentence of death, penal servitude or imprisonment with hard labour for more than twelve months, after conviction for treason or felony, disqualifies from holding or retaining a seat in parliament, public offices under the crown or otherwise, right to vote at elections, etc., and such disability is to remain until the punishment has been suffered or a pardon obtained. Provision was made for the due administration of convicts' estates, in the interests of themselves and their families. Forfeiture consequent on outlawry was exempted from the provisions of the act.
The United States constitution (Art. III. s. 3) says: "The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted."
Bills of Attainder, in English legal procedure, were formerly a parliamentary method of exercising judicial authority. They were ordinarily initiated in the House of Lords and the proceedings were the same as on other bills, but the parties against whom they were brought might appear by counsel and produce witnesses in both Houses. In the case of an impeachment, the House of Commons was prosecutor and the House of Lords judge; but such bills being legislative in form, the consent of crown, lords and commons was necessary to pass them. Bishops, who do not exercise but who claim the right to vote in cases of impeachment, have a right to vote upon bills of attainder, but their vote is not conclusive in passing judgment upon the accused.
First passed in 1459, such bills were employed, more particularly during the reigns of the Tudor kings, as a species of extrajudicial procedure, for the direct punishment of political offences. Dispensing with the ordinary judicial forms and precedents, they took away from the accused whatever advantages he might have gained in the courts of law; such evidence only was admitted as might be necessary to secure conviction; indeed, in many cases bills of attainder were passed without any evidence being produced at all. In the reign of Henry VIII they were much used, through a subservient parliament, to punish those who had incurred the king's displeasure; many distinguished victims who could not have been charged with any offence under the existing laws being by this means disposed of. In the 17th century, during the disputes with Charles I, the Long Parliament made effective use of the same procedure, forcing the sovereign to give his consent. After the Restoration it became less frequent, though the Jacobite movement in Scotland produced several instances of attainder, without, however, the infliction of the extreme penalty of death. The last bill of attainder passed in England was in the case of Lord Edward Fitzgerald, one of the Irish rebel leaders of 1798.
A bill for reversing attainder took a form contrary too the usual rule. It was first signed by the sovereign and presented by a peer to the House of Lords by command of the crown, then passed through the ordinary stages and on to the commons, to whom the sovereign's assent was communicated before the first reading was taken, otherwise the whole proceedings were null and void.
A Bill of Pains and Penalties resembles a bill of attainder in object and procedure, but imposes a lesser punishment than death. The most notable instances of the passing of a bill of pains and penalties are those of Bishop Atterbury in 1722, and of Queen Caroline, wife of George IV, in 1820.
The constitution of the United States declares that "no bill of attainder or ex post facto law shall be passed."
Being the entry for ATTAINDER in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.