Legal Dictionary


Legal Definition of pardon


  1. A pardon is a government decision to allow a person who has been convicted of a crime, to be free and absolved of that conviction, as if never convicted. It is typically used to remove a criminal record against a good citizen for a small crime that may have been committed during adolescence or young adulthood. Although procedures vary from one state to another, the request for a pardon usually involves a lengthy period of time of impeccable behavior and a reference check. Generally speaking, the more serious the crime, the longer the time requirement for excellent behavior. In the USA, the power to pardon for federal offenses belongs to the President.

Related terms

Definition of pardon


  • (Canada) IPA: /ˈpɑrdən/
  • (US) IPA: /ˈpɑɹɾn̩/
  • Audio (US) [?]
  • Rhymes: -ɑː(r)dən


pardon (plural pardons)

  1. Forgiveness for an offence.

    * 1748: Samuel Richardson, Clarissa
    a step, that could not be taken with the least hope of ever obtaining pardon from or reconciliation with any of my friends;

  2. (law) An order that releases a convicted criminal without further punishment, prevents future punishment, or (in some jurisdictions) removes an offence from a person's criminal record, as if it had never been committed.

    * 1974: President Gerald Ford, Proclamation 4311
    I... have granted and by these presents do grant a full, free, and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States ...

Further reading

Clemency means the forgiveness of a crime or the cancellation (in whole or in part) of the penalty associated with it. It is a general concept that encompasses several related procedures: pardoning, commutation, remission and reprieves. A pardon is the forgiveness of a crime and the cancellation of the relevant penalty; it is usually granted by a head of state (such as a monarch or president) or by a competent church authority. Commutation or remission is the lessening of a penalty without forgiveness for the crime; the beneficiary is still considered guilty of the offense. A reprieve is the temporary postponement of punishment.

Today, pardons are granted in many countries when individuals have demonstrated that they have fulfilled their debt to society, or are otherwise considered to be deserving. Pardons are sometimes offered to persons who claim they have been wrongfully convicted. Some believe accepting such a pardon implicitly constitutes an admission of guilt, so in some cases the offer is refused. (Cases of wrongful conviction are nowadays more often dealt with by appeal than by pardon). Clemency plays a very important role when capital punishment is applied.

By country

- United Kingdom

The power to grant pardons and reprieves in the United Kingdom is known as the royal prerogative of mercy. It was traditionally in the absolute power of the monarch to pardon and release an individual who had been convicted of a crime from that conviction and its intended penalty. Pardons were granted to many in the 18th century on condition that the convicted felons accept transportation overseas, such as to Australia. The first General Pardon in England was issued in celebration of the coronation of Edward III in 1327. In 2006 all British soldiers executed for cowardice during World War I were pardoned, resolving a long-running controversy about the justice of their executions. (See Armed Forces Act 2006.)

There are significant procedural differences in the present use of the royal pardon, however. Today the monarch only grants pardons on the advice of a government minister: the Justice Secretary within England and Wales, the First Minister of Scotland, or the Northern Ireland Secretary. The Defence Secretary is responsible for military cases. It is government policy to only grant pardons to those who are "morally" innocent of the offence, as opposed to those who may have been wrongly convicted by misapplication of the law. Pardons are generally no longer issued prior to conviction, but only after conviction. A pardon is no longer considered to remove the conviction itself, but only removes the penalty which was imposed. Use of the royal prerogative of mercy is now rare, particularly since the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission and Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which provide a statutory remedy for miscarriages of justice.

Therefore, the granting of pardons is very rare and the vast majority of recognised miscarriages of justice were decided upon by the courts. During the Birmingham Six controversy, then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd stressed that he could only make the decision for a pardon if he was "convinced of innocence", which at the time he was not.

One notorious recent case was that of the drug smugglers John Haase and Paul Bennett. They were pardoned in July 1996 from 18-year sentences, having served ten months, on the advice of then Home Secretary Michael Howard. This was intended to reward them for information they gave to the authorities, but there was speculation about Howard's motives. In 2008, they were given 20-year and 22-year sentences after it was found that their information was unreliable.

In 1980, after the courts refused to, the Home Secretary William Whitelaw used the royal prerogative of mercy to free David Cooper and Michael McMahon, both accused of murder and convicted on poor evidence. They died in the 1990s, and were fully cleared posthumously.

According to the Act of Settlement a pardon cannot prevent a person from being impeached by Parliament, but may rescind the penalty following conviction. In England and Wales nobody may be pardoned for an offence under section 11 of the Habeas Corpus Act 1679 (unlawfully transporting prisoners out of England and Wales).

- United States

Federal law

In the United States, the pardon power for federal crimes is granted to the President of the United States under Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution which states that the President "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment." The Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted this language to include the power to grant pardons, conditional pardons, commutations of sentence, conditional commutations of sentence, remissions of fines and forfeitures, respites and amnesties.

All federal pardon petitions are addressed to the President, who grants or denies the request. Typically, applications for pardons are referred for review and non-binding recommendation by the Office of the Pardon Attorney, an official of the United States Department of Justice. The percentage of pardons and reprieves granted varies from administration to administration (fewer pardons have been granted since World War II).

The pardon power was controversial from the outset; many Anti-Federalists remembered examples of royal abuses of the pardon power in Europe, and warned that the same would happen in the new republic. Alexander Hamilton defended the pardon power in Federalist Papers, particularly in Federalist No. 74. In his final day in office, George Washington granted the first high-profile federal pardon to leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion.

Many pardons have been controversial. Critics argue that pardons have been used more often for the sake of political expediency than to correct judicial error. One of the more famous recent pardons was granted by President Gerald Ford to former President Richard Nixon on September 8, 1974, for official misconduct which gave rise to the Watergate scandal. Polls showed a majority of Americans disapproved of the pardon, and Ford's public-approval ratings tumbled afterward.


  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.


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