Definition of statute of limitations
statute of limitations (plural statutes of limitations)
- (law) Any law that sets a time limit, after which a person may not be tried for a crime, or after which some other legal action may not take place
A statute of limitations is an enactment in a common law legal system that sets the maximum time after an event that legal proceedings based on that event may be initiated. In civil law systems, similar provisions are typically part of the civil code or criminal code and are often known collectively as periods of prescription.
Common law legal system might have a statute, for example, limiting the time for prosecution of a debt or crimes designated as misdemeanors to two years after the offense occurred. Under such a statute, if a person is discovered to have committed a misdemeanor three years earlier, the time has expired for the person to be prosecuted. While it may seem unfair to forbid prosecution of crimes that law enforcement can later prove to a standard required by law (cf., e.g. beyond a reasonable doubt, clear and convincing evidence, and preponderance of the evidence), the purpose of a statute of limitations or its equivalent is to ensure that the possibility of punishment for an act committed long ago cannot give rise to either a person's incarceration or the criminal justice system's activation. In short, unless the crime is deemed exceptionally heinous - for example, murder, to which the statute does not generally apply - social justice as enacted through law says that lesser crimes from long ago are best left alone so as not to distract attention from more serious crimes.
Once the time allowed for a case by a statute of limitations runs out, if a party raises it as a defense and that defense is accepted, any further litigation is foreclosed. However, most jurisdictions provide that limitations are tolled, or delayed, 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 plaintiff 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 that 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; 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.
As discussed in Wolk v. Olson, the discovery rule does not apply to mass-media publications such as newspapers and the Internet; the statute of limitations begins to run at the date of publication.
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. 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.
Although 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 U.S. 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.
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