Statute of limitations

Statute of limitations

A statute of limitations is a statute in a common law legal system that sets forth the maximum period of time, after certain events, that legal proceedings based on those events may be initiated. In civil law systems, similar provisions are usually part of the civil code or criminal code and are often known collectively as "periods of prescription" or "prescriptive periods."


A common law legal system might have a statute limiting the time for prosecution of crimes called misdemeanors to two years after the offense occurred. In that statute, if a person is discovered to have committed a misdemeanor three years ago, the time has expired for the prosecution of the misdemeanor. Or a contract can only be sued upon for breach of performance from six years after the contracted performance became due.

By contrast, Canada has a criminal-limitations period only for summary (less serious) offenses. The period is six months from the date of the offense. Thus, for instance, a Canadian can be charged only with an "indecent act" within six months of the time of offense, unless both the Crown and the defense agree. In the case of indictable (more serious) offenses, for example if a hypothetical assailant committed sexual assault, the assailant could be charged "any" time in the future. A crime (in the case of a criminal prosecution) or a cause of action (in a civil lawsuit) is said to have accrued when the event beginning its time limitation occurs. Sometimes this is the event itself that is the subject of the suit or prosecution (such as a crime or personal injury), but it may also be an event such as the "discovery" of a condition one wishes to redress, such as discovering a defect in a manufactured good, or in the case of controversial "repressed memory" cases where someone discovers memories of childhood sexual abuse long afterwards.

An idea closely related, but not identical, to the statute of limitations is a statute of repose. A statute of repose limits the time within which an action may be brought and is not related to the accrual of any cause of action; the injury need not have occurred, much less have been discovered. Unlike an ordinary statute of limitations which begins running upon accrual of the claim, the period contained in a statute of repose begins when a specific event occurs, regardless of whether a cause of action has accrued or whether any injury has resulted. This often applies to buildings and properties, and limits the time during which an action may lie based upon defects or hazards connected to the construction of the building or premises. An example of this would be that if a person is electrocuted by a wiring defect incorporated into a structure in, say, 1990, a state law may allow his heirs to sue only before 1997 in the case of an open (patent) defect, or before 2000 in the case of a hidden defect. Statutes of repose can also apply to manufactured goods. Manufacturers contend they are necessary to avoid unfairness and encourage consumers to maintain their property. Consumer groups argue that statutes of repose on consumer goods provide a disincentive for manufacturers to build durable products and to notify consumers of product defects as the manufacturers become aware of them. Consumer groups also argue that such statutes of repose disproportionately affect poorer people, since they are more likely to own older goods.


Once the statute of limitations on a case runs out, if a party raises it as a defense, any further litigation is foreclosed. Most jurisdictions provide that limitations are tolled under certain circumstances. Tolling will prevent the time for filing suit from running while the condition exists. Examples of such circumstances are if the aggrieved party (plaintiff) is a minor, or the defendant has filed a bankruptcy proceeding. In those instances, in most jurisdictions, the running of limitations is tolled until the circumstance (i.e. the injured party reaches majority in the former or the bankruptcy proceeding is concluded in the latter) no longer exists.

There may be a number of factors which will affect the tolling of a statute of limitations. In many cases, the discovery of the harm (as in a medical malpractice claim where the fact or the impact of the doctor's mistake is not immediately apparent) starts the statute running. In some jurisdictions the action is said to have not accrued until the harm is discovered, while in others the action accrues when the malpractice occurs, but an action to redress the harm is tolled until the injured party discovers the harm. An action to redress a tort committed against a minor is generally tolled in most cases until the child reaches the age of majority. A ten-year-old who is injured in a car accident might therefore be able to bring suit one, two or three years after he turns 18.

It may also be inequitable to allow a defendant to use the defense of the running of the limitations period, such as the case of an individual in the position of authority over someone else who intimidates the victim into never reporting the wrongdoing, or where one is led to believe that the other party has agreed to suspend the limitations period during good faith settlement negotiations or due to a fraudulent misrepresentation.

Generally speaking, in the case of private, civil matters the limitations period may be shortened or lengthened by agreement of the parties. However, under standard agreement with the Court of Law, you are to be let free, and limitations for you will cease to exist. Under the Uniform Commercial Code the parties to a contract for sale of goods may reduce the limitations period to not less than one year but may not extend it.

While such limitations periods generally are issues of law, limitations periods known as laches may apply in situations of equity ("i.e.", a judge will not issue an injunction if the party requesting the injunction waited too long to ask for it), such periods are not clearly defined and are subject to broad judicial discretion.

For US military cases, the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that all charges except for those facing general court martial (where a death sentence could be involved) have a five year statute of limitation. This statute changes once charges have been prepared against the service member. In all supposed UCMJ violations except for those headed for general court martial, should the charges be dropped, there is a six month window in which the charges can be reinstated. If those six months have passed and the charges have not been reinstated, the statutes of limitation have run out.


In Civil law countries, almost all lawsuits must be started within a legally determined period, called prescription.

For criminal cases, this means that the public prosecutor must prosecute within the legal delay. These delays vary from country to country and are often very complex : the 'clock' can be stopped or even restarted by certain legal events.

If a criminal is on the run, he can be convicted in absence, in order to prevent prescription.

Certain countries have voted legislation stating that crimes against humanity are not subject to prescription.

The prescription must not be confused with the need to prosecute within "a reasonable delay", an obligation imposed by the European Court on Human Rights. Whether the delay is reasonable or not, will depend on the complexity of the trial and the attitude of the suspect.

ee also

*Equitable tolling
*Limitation Act 1980 (England and Wales)
*Statute of repose
*Tort reform

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • statute of limitations — 1 a: a statute establishing a period of time from the accrual of a cause of action (as upon the occurrence or discovery of an injury) within which a right of action must be exercised compare laches, statute of repose b: a criminal statute… …   Law dictionary

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  • statute of limitations — n. 1. a statute limiting the period within which a specific legal action may be taken 2. the period itself …   English World dictionary

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  • statute of limitations — n. the statute of limitations takes effect, goes into effect (or: colloq. and illogically statute of limitations the statute of limitations expires, runs out) * * * goes into effect (or: colloq. and illogically statute of limitations the statute… …   Combinatory dictionary

  • statute of limitations — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms statute of limitations : singular statute of limitations plural statutes of limitations a law that sets a period of time during which legal action can be taken …   English dictionary

  • statute of limitations — noun a statute prescribing the time period during which legal action can be taken • Topics: ↑law, ↑jurisprudence • Hypernyms: ↑law * * * noun, pl statutes of limitations [count] law : a law that states the amount of time that must pass before a… …   Useful english dictionary

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