What is a Statute of Limitations?
A statute of limitations refers to a law that limits the maximum time frame during which legal proceedings – civil or criminal – can be initiated after an alleged offense. Some statutes are specified by legislation, while others are a matter of common law history.
Once the time period specified by a statute of limitations has expired, then no civil or criminal actions related to the alleged offense may be brought against the alleged offender. The period covered by statutes of limitations may be designated to begin on the date of the alleged offense or the date when the offense was discovered.
There are some instances where the running of a statute of limitations may be paused for a certain period of time. For example, in the case of an offense committed against a minor, the time clock on the relevant statute of limitations may be paused until the victim reaches legal age.
Nearly all civil actions are subject to statutes of limitations. However, serious criminal offenses, such as murder or sexual offenses, may not be subject to any statute of limitations. The statutes differ from state to state in the United States.
Why Are There Statutes of Limitations?
Although victims of a civil or criminal offense may sometimes feel that they are denied justice by a statute of limitations that prohibits the prosecution of their offender, there are several common-sense reasons why such statutes exist. The main reason for creating statutes of limitations is to prevent potential defendants from being subject to unfair prosecution or other legal action.
One concern that gives rise to statutes of limitations is the simple fact that, after the passage of many years, relevant evidence may well have been lost. If so, it can unfairly hinder either the prosecution or the defense and lead to an unjust verdict.
Of particular concern is relevant eyewitness testimony, especially if no formal statement was made by a witness near the time of the alleged offense. People’s memories fade and become less reliable over time, and it is considered unreasonable to expect witnesses to be able to clearly recall details from an incident that may have occurred decades earlier.
It is also believed that it is simply unjust to bring a claim against an alleged offender for an offense they committed in the distant past. Such an aspect of limiting prosecution is, of course, much more commonly applied to civil matters than to serious criminal offenses.
History of Statutes of Limitations
Statutes of limitations have been in existence since times of ancient history. In ancient Greece, every crime except for murder was subject to a five-year statute of limitations. Such statutes were also written into ancient Roman law.
From the time of the Roman Empire, varying statutes of limitations were either specifically written into the laws of different countries or existed as part of common law. However, English law, on which most of the modern western jurisprudence is based, did not begin to extensively codify statutes of limitations until the 17th century.
The length of time prescribed by statutes of limitations varies widely. While statutes of limitations on serious criminal offenses may cover very long periods of time, statutes related to things such as the settlement or administration of an estate may only extend for a relatively short period – perhaps six months to a year.
In the area of business transactions, according to the Uniform Commercial Code, parties to a contract for the sale of goods may contractually agree to limit any legal proceedings related to the sale to a time frame as short as one year, but may not contractually agree to extend the time of liability beyond existing, relevant statutes of limitations.