A stay of execution is a temporary delay in the carrying out of a court order. People often hear this term used in reference to capital punishment and believe that the “execution” is a reference to the death penalty, but it actually means “the execution of a court order.” There are a wide range of settings in which a stay of execution can be used, and there are many situations in which a stay is triggered automatically.
When a case is sent to court and tried, the court may deem that some action needs to be taken, such as paying damages to someone who has been injured, sending someone to jail for committing a crime, or placing an injunction on a particular activity. The court issues an order outlining the action to be taken. A stay of execution can be used to delay the execution of a court order.
One case in which a stay will kick in automatically is in death penalty cases. When someone is sentenced to death, a stay of execution is immediately put in place so that the court order can be reviewed to confirm that it is legal. People are also entitled to an appeal and they cannot be executed until an appeal has taken place. Likewise, most nations have laws which forbid the execution of a pregnant woman, so a woman sentenced to death who is found to be pregnant will be issued a stay of execution which lasts until she has safely delivered the child.
People can file for a stay of execution if they want to appeal a court ruling so that the court order cannot be carried out before the appeal can take place. For example, if a company is ordered to pay damages to a consumer injured by one of their products, it can indicate that it plans to appeal and a stay will be put in place so that it is not obliged to pay the damages. Otherwise, the company would be forced to pay the damages in accordance with the court order, and then to return to court for the appeal, which would not be terribly logical.
Notably, a stay of execution can be issued by a high ranking government official when someone sentenced to death is about to be executed. Lawyers usually routinely request a stay shortly before the sentence is to be carried out in a final attempt to buy time for their clients. In addition, there may be situations in which new evidence emerges which suggests that the facts of the case may not be as clear as they seemed to be when the sentence was handed down, in which case a stay of execution is requested to prepare an appeal. Some governments evade such tactics by not announcing the scheduled dates of executions.