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STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS AND ITS PURPOSE

INTRODUCTION

In a general sense, the term ‘limitation’ is a restriction or a confining rule or situation whereas, in a legal sense, the law of limitation is a part of legislation which prescribes a maximum period within which the aggrieved party involved in a civil or criminal offence can bring forth legal action against the defendant. Such statutes are there in the legislation all around the world with the sole purpose of protecting the defendants against unjustified legal proceedings. The time periods prescribed by such statutes of limitations vary greatly with statutes of limitations for serious criminal offences extending up to long periods and statutes of limitations for smaller insignificant offences being as short as six months to a year. Let us take a look into the statute of limitations and its purpose further.

MEANING OF STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

A statute of limitations is a law controlling the duration within which a criminal or civil legal action can be filed against an accused party. Under a statute of limitations, a maximum time period is prescribed during which suits can be filed following an alleged offence. Some of these statutes are laid down by the legislation whereas others are simply grounded on judicial precedents. These are usually considered to begin on the day the alleged offence was committed or on the day it was found out. Once a statute of limitations passes, no legal action can be brought forth against an alleged perpetrator.[1] The statute of limitation aims towards protecting the accused against unfair proceedings, for instance, there might be a case of the accused no longer having access to substantial and relevant evidence to justify themselves after such a long time. These statutes are applicable to most civil suits whereas, crimes of serious nature like murder or sexual offences including rape and harassment are generally excluded from any such statute of limitations.

HISTORY OF STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

The Statute of limitations has been in existence since ancient times. It has a long history as a separate legislative action as well as a part of general statutory law. In ancient Greece, every offence except murder had a limitation period of five years and such statutes were also a part of the medieval Roman legislation. Either the laws of limitation have been assimilated into the legislations of different countries around the world or carried on as part of their legal systems since the Roman Empire ended. However, until the 17th Century, English law did not entirely start to define the statute of limitations which significantly impacted the legislations of the majority of western countries which were founded based on English law.[2]

PURPOSE OF STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS

Even though there has been some controversy regarding the purpose of the statute of limitations with the victims of civil or criminal offences viewing limitation periods exempting prosecution of an accused as a denial of their justice, there are certain reasons why they exist. The main objective of there being a period of limitation is to defend the allegedly accused people from unfair legal proceedings or trials. One such issue is the probability that any significant evidence relevant to the defendant being able to justify himself may have been lost after such a long period which may result in an unfair verdict obstructing justice. Another issue is that of reliable witness testimonies especially if no such official testimony was made when the offence took place. With time people’s recollections become unreliable and therefore it is considered non-viable to expect witnesses to remember specific details from an occurrence from a long time ago and give reliable testimonies. There have also been claims that filing a lawsuit against a defendant for an offense that took place long ago is just preposterous and absurd and hinders that person’s entire life. However, this is in the case of smaller civil offenses and not significant criminal offenses of grave nature.[3]

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS IN INDIA

In India, the statute regarding limitation is the Limitation Act, 1963 (formerly the Limitation Act, 1859)[4] enforced on 5th October 1963 that came into operation on 1st January 1964 with the aim of  integrating and enhancing the legal aspects concerning the constraint of legal proceedings.[5] The Limitation Act, 1963 consists of 32 sections and 137 articles which have further been split into 10 parts concerning accounts, contracts, statements, decrees and instruments, immovable property, movable property, torts, trust funds and property, miscellaneous issues and lawsuits with no prescribed period respectively.[6]

The idea behind the statute of limitations is that a never-ending continuous threat of being prosecuted can be dubious and troublesome for the individual. Hence, such legislations for limitation have been enacted for the public interest and to ensure stability, however, the court still holds the power to excuse the delay in seeking legal remedy within the limitation period if a reasonable cause for doing so is proven. While the basic idea behind providing a specific time limitation time for seeking legal remedy for an offence is justified and necessary, there exists no fair basis on which the time frame of the period of limitation for different types of offences is prescribed. Even though the only purpose of the law of limitation is to avoid lawsuits put forward after the specified time of limitation from being proceeded in court it must be kept in mind that the act should be interpreted in a manner which keeps the proceedings going in order not to deprive the petitioner to avail remedy and get justice to the greatest possible extension.

STATUTE OF LIMITATIONS IN COUNTRIES AROUND THE WORLD

Different nations around the world have very different statutes of limitations. In the US, the limitation period for civil suits varies according to state legislations and is influenced by the sort of claim, however, the limitation period typically lies between 1 to 6 years and can be further extended based on the nature of the claim and jurisdiction. And in Canada, the statute of limitation for civil suits is usually 2 years and varies according to the region but it can be further extended if the claim could only be rationally recognized later than the time of the offence.[7]

CONCLUSION

It is without a doubt that statutes of limitations are vital in most legal areas and most nations’ legal systems recognize this need and apply limitations to most offences except for the most despicable crimes. It should however be kept in mind that the statute of limitations does not concern the duration or end of the trial and is only limited to the time period for access to the criminal justice system. Lastly, it can be concluded by saying that the statute of limitations has had a significant impact on the legal system for the better.

Author(s) Name: Sayantinee Bardhan (KLE Society’s Law College, Bengaluru (affiliated to Karnataka State Law University)

References:

[1]‘Statute of Limitations’ (Cornell Legal Information Institute) <https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/statute_of_limitations> accessed 23 November 2022

[2] ‘Statute of Limitations’ (Corporate Finance Institute, 17 October 2022) <https://corporatefinanceinstitute.com/resources/wealth-management/statute-of-limitations/> accessed 24 November 2022

[3] What is a statute of limitations and what is the purpose of it?’(Chilina Law, 16 July 2017) <https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/statute_of_limitations> accessed 24 November 2022

[4] Limitation Act 1859

[5] Pradeep Kumar & V. Udayavani, ‘Law of Limitation Act in India’ (2018) 120 IJPAM 2583

[6] Limitation Act 1963

[7] ‘Global Litigation Guide Country Insight’ (DLA Piper) <https://www.dlapiperintelligence.com/litigation/insight/index.html?t=02-limitation> accessed 24 November 2022