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Penal law

Generally speaking, penal or criminal law refers to the body of criminal law, laws that are enforced by the State in its own name and impose penalties for their violation, as opposed to civil law that seeks to redress private wrongs.

In English history, penal law refers to a specific series of laws that sought to uphold the establishment of the Church of England against Protestant nonconformists and Roman Catholics, by imposing various forfeitures, civil penalties, and civil disabilities upon these dissenters. Some examples of these laws are the law of praemunire, the series of Test Acts, the Conventicle Act, the Five Mile Act, and the Act of Uniformity.

In Ireland these laws were also in force, where they had a pronounced effect, disenfranchising the majority of the Irish population who were Roman Catholic or Presbyterian in favour of the much smaller established Church of Ireland. Though the laws also affected the major religious faith, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, in the area of the island later to become Northern Ireland, its principal victim was the Roman Catholic Church, which was the religion of over three quarters of the people on the island, and the faith of the overwhelming majority of the mere Irish[?] (in contemporary english, 'mere' meant 'pure' or 'fully').

Among the discriminations faced by victims of the Penal Laws were:

  • Exclusion from membership in either the Irish Parliament or the British Parliament;
  • Exclusion from voting;
  • Severe property restrictions, notably
    • the ability of any member of the Church of Ireland to seize property from any Catholic, without compensation;
    • the ability of any landlord to raise rents without restriction, and to evict at will.

The Penal Laws were gradually repealed at the end of the eighteenth century and beginning of the nineteenth century.

Worldwide International Penal Law

Penal Law by Continents

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