Puneet Varma (Editor)

Statute of limitations

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Statutes of limitations are laws passed by legislative bodies in common law systems to set the maximum time after an event within which legal proceedings may be initiated. When the period of time specified in a statute of limitations passes, a claim might no longer be filed, or, if filed, may be liable to be struck out if the defense to that claim is, or includes, that it is statute barred as having been filed after the limitations period.


The intention of these laws is to facilitate resolution within a "reasonable" length of time. What period of time is considered "reasonable" varies from country to country, and within countries such as the United States from state to state, and within countries and states from civil or criminal action to civil or criminal action. Some countries, and some crimes (depending on the country), have no statute of limitations whatsoever. In civil law systems, similar provisions are typically part of their civil or criminal codes and known collectively as periods of prescription. The cause of action dictates the statute of limitations, which can be reduced (or extended) to ensure a fair trial.

When a statute of limitations expires in a criminal case, the courts no longer have jurisdiction. Analysis of a statute of limitations includes the examination of any associated statute of repose, tolling provisions, and exclusions.


Common law legal systems can include a statute specifying the length of time within which a claimant or prosecutor must file a case. In some civil jurisdictions (e.g., California), a case cannot begin after the period specified, and courts have no jurisdiction over cases filed after the statute of limitations has expired. In some other jurisdictions (e.g., New South Wales, Australia), a claim can be filed which may prove to have been brought outside the limitations period, but the court will retain jurisdiction in order to determine that issue, and the onus is on the defendant to plead it as part of their defence, or else the claim will not be statute barred.

Once filed, cases do not need to be resolved within the period specified in the statute of limitations.


The purpose and effect of statutes of limitations are to protect defendants. There are three reasons for their existence:

  • A plaintiff with a valid cause of action should pursue it with reasonable diligence.
  • A defendant might have lost evidence to disprove a stale claim.
  • A long-dormant claim has more cruelty than justice.
  • The limitation period generally begins when the plaintiff's cause of action accrues, or they become aware of a previous injury (for example, occupational lung diseases such as asbestosis). In Classical Athens, a five-year statute of limitations was established for all cases except homicide and the prosecution of non-constitutional laws (which had no limitation). Demosthenes wrote that these statutes of limitations were adopted to control "sycophants" (professional accusers).

    Statute of repose

    A statute of limitations is a type of statute of repose which may be extended for a variety of reasons (such as the minority of the victim). Other statutes of repose limit the time within which an action may be brought based upon when a particular event occurred (such as the completion of construction of a building or the purchase of manufactured goods), and often do not permit extensions.

    For example, if a person receives an electric shock due to a wiring defect which occurred during construction of a building, the builder is liable for damages if the suit is brought within a certain number of years after construction was completed. After that, any injury is considered due to the natural degradation of the structure or a lack of proper maintenance rather than the builder's actions.

    Statutes of repose are sometimes controversial; manufacturers contend that they are necessary to avoid unfair litigation and encourage consumers to maintain their property. Alternatively, consumer advocates argue that they reduce incentives to manufacture durable products and disproportionately affect the poor, because manufacturers will have less incentive to ensure low-cost or "bargain" products are manufactured to exacting safety standards.

    Tolling and the discovery rule

    Many jurisdictions suspend, or toll, the limitation period under certain circumstances—for example, if the aggrieved party (plaintiff) is a minor or has filed a bankruptcy proceeding. In those instances, the running of limitations is tolled (paused) until the condition ends. Equitable tolling may also be applied if an individual may intimidate a plaintiff into not reporting or has been promised a suspended period.

    The statute of limitations may begin when the harmful event (such as fraud or injury) occurs or when it is discovered. The Supreme Court of the United States has described the "standard rule" of when the time begins as "when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action", a rule in existence since the 1830s. A "discovery rule" applies in other cases (including medical malpractice), or a similar effect may be applied through tolling. As discussed in Wolk v. Olson, the discovery rule does not apply to mass media such as newspapers and the Internet; the statute of limitations begins to run at the date of publication. In 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously in Gabelli v. SEC that the discovery rule does not apply to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's investment-advisor-fraud lawsuits, since one purpose of the agency is to root out fraud.

    In private civil matters, the limitations period may generally be shortened or lengthened by agreement of the parties. Under the Uniform Commercial Code, the parties to a contract for sale of goods may reduce the limitations period to one year but not extend it.

    Limitation periods known as laches may apply in situations of equity; a judge will not issue an injunction if the requesting party waited too long to ask for it. Such periods are subject to broad judicial discretion.

    For U.S. military cases, the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states that all charges except those facing court-martial on a capital charge have a five-year statute of limitations. In all UCMJ proceedings except those headed for general court-martial, if the charges are dropped there is a six-month window in which they can be reinstated. If six months have passed without reinstatement, the statute of limitations has run out.


    In civil law countries, almost all lawsuits must be brought within a legally-determined period known as prescription. Under Italian and Romanian law, criminal trials must be ended within a time limit.

    In criminal cases, the public prosecutor must lay charges within a time limit which varies by jurisdiction and varies based on the nature of the charge; in many jurisdictions, there is no statute of limitations for murder. Over the last decade of the 20th century, many United States jurisdictions significantly lengthened the statute of limitations for sex offenses, particularly against children, as a response to research and popular belief that a variety of causes can delay the recognition and reporting of crimes of this nature.

    Common triggers for suspending the prescription include a defendant's fugitive status or the commission of a new crime. A criminal may be convicted in absentia. Prescription should not be confused with the need to prosecute within "a reasonable delay" as obligated by the European Court of Human Rights.

    International crimes

    Under international law, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are usually not subject to the statute of limitations as codified in a number of multilateral treaties. States ratifying the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity agree to disallow limitations claims for these crimes. In Article 29 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes "shall not be subject to any statute of limitations".


    The Limitations Act of 1958 allows 12 years for child survivors and the disabled to make a claim, with age 37 the latest at which a claim can be made. The police submitted evidence to a commission, the Victorian Inquiry into Church and Institutional Child Abuse (in existence since 2012) indicating that it takes an average of 24 years for a survivor of child sexual abuse to go to the police. According to Attorney General Robert Clark, the government will remove statutes of limitations on criminal child abuse; survivors of violent crime should be given additional time, as adults, to deal with the legal system. Offenders of minors and the disabled have used the statute of limitations to avoid detection and prosecution, moving from state to state and country to country; an example presented to the Victorian Inquiry was the Christian Brothers.

    An argument for abolishing statutes of limitations for civil claims by minors and people under guardianship is ensuring that abuse of vulnerable people would be acknowledged by lawyers, police, organisations and governments, with enforceable penalties for organisations which have turned a blind eye in the past. Support groups such as SNAP Australia, Care Leavers Australia Network and Broken Rites have submitted evidence to the Victoria inquiry, and the Law Institute of Victoria has advocated changes to the statute of limitations.


    For crimes other than summary conviction offences, there is no statute of limitations in Canadian criminal law. For indictable (serious) offences such as major theft, murder, kidnapping or sexual assault, a defendant may be charged at any future date; in some cases, warrants have remained outstanding for more than 20 years. The sole exception is a charge of treason, which must be brought within 3 years.

    Civil law limitations vary by province, with Ontario introducing the Limitations Act, 2002 on January 1, 2004.


    The statute of limitations in India is defined by the Limitations Act, 1963.

    The statute of limitations for criminal offences is governed by Sec. 468 of the Criminal Procedure Code.

    United Kingdom

    Unlike other European countries, the United Kingdom has no statute of limitations for serious sexual crimes.

    Fraud upon the court

    When an officer of the court is found to have fraudulently presented facts to impair the court's impartial performance of its legal task, the act (known as fraud upon the court) is not subject to a statute of limitation. Officers of the court include lawyers, judges, referees, legal guardians, parenting-time expeditors, mediators, evaluators, administrators, special appointees and any others whose influence is part of the judicial mechanism. Fraud upon the court has been defined by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to "embrace that species of fraud which does, or attempts to, defile the court itself, or is a fraud perpetrated by officers of the court so that the judicial machinery cannot perform in the usual manner its impartial task of adjudging cases that are presented for adjudication". In Bulloch v. United States, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled: "Fraud upon the court is fraud which is directed to the judicial machinery itself and is not fraud between the parties or fraudulent documents, false statements or perjury ... It is where the court or a member is corrupted or influenced or influence is attempted or where the judge has not performed his judicial function—thus where the impartial functions of the court have been directly corrupted."

    Heinous crimes

    Crimes considered heinous by society have no statute of limitations. Although there is usually no statute of limitations for murder (particularly first-degree murder), judges have been known to dismiss murder charges in cold cases if they feel the delay violates the defendant's right to a speedy trial.

    Continuing-violations doctrine

    In tort law, if a defendant commits a series of illegal acts against another person (or in criminal law if someone commits a continuing crime) the limitation period may begin to run from the last act in the series. In the 8th Circuit case of Treanor v. MCI Telecommunications, Inc., the court explained that the continuing-violations doctrine "tolls [freezes] the statute of limitations in situations where a continuing pattern forms due to [illegal] acts occurring over a period of time, as long as at least one incident ... occurred within the limitations period." Whether the continuing-violations doctrine applies to a particular violation is subject to judicial discretion; it was ruled to apply to copyright infringement in Taylor v. Meirick (712 F.2d 1112, 1119; 7th Cir. 1983) but not in Stone v. Williams (970 F.2d 1043, 1049–50; 2d Cir. 1992).

    South Korea

    In July 2015 the National Assembly abolished a 25-year-old statute on first degree murder; it had previously been extended from 15 to 25 years in December 2007.


    Statute of limitations Wikipedia

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