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The Principle of Legality in Spain: Foundation of a Rule of Law

The principle of legality is a cornerstone in Spain's legal framework. In the Spanish context, this principle is firmly established in the Constitution and the overall legal system. Let's delve into what it entails and why it is so fundamental.

What is the Principle of Legality?

The principle of legality, known in Spanish as the "principle of penal legality," asserts that no one can be convicted or penalized for actions that were not previously defined as crimes by law. In other words, a person can only be punished for breaking a law that existed before the action was committed. This ensures predictability and legal certainty.

Constitutional Foundations

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 enshrines the principle of legality in several key articles:

  • Article 9.3: "The Constitution guarantees the principle of legality, the hierarchy of norms, the publicity of norms, the non-retroactivity of punitive provisions that are unfavorable or restrictive of individual rights, legal certainty, responsibility, and the interdiction of the arbitrariness of public authorities."

  • Article 25.1: "No one can be convicted or penalized for actions or omissions that, at the time they occurred, did not constitute a crime, offense, or administrative infraction according to the legislation in force at that time."

Significant Implications

The principle of legality has significant implications for justice and individual rights. It ensures that individuals cannot be prosecuted or punished arbitrarily by the state and that the law must be clear and precise in defining crimes and penalties.

Moreover, this principle contributes to the separation of powers, as it establishes that the legislative branch (parliament) is responsible for creating laws, while the judicial branch is limited to their application. This is crucial to prevent the abuse of power and ensure a fair legal system.


In summary, the principle of legality in Spain is vital for the functioning of a Rule of Law state. It guarantees that laws are clear, predictable, and just, and that individuals are treated fairly and with respect for their individual rights within the legal system. It is a fundamental pillar in safeguarding the rights and freedoms of citizens.

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