Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Limitations or Statute of Limitations Definition:

Loss of a legal right or cause of action because of the passage of time.

Related Terms: Vigilantibus Et Non Dormientibus Jura Subveniunt, Prescription, Laches, Statute of Limitations, Statute of Repose, Temporal Jurisdiction

See also Statute of Limitations.

The extinguishment and loss of a cause of action because of the passage of too much time.

Lord (William) Plunkett (b. 1765), one time Chancellor of Ireland, once eloquently said of limitations:

"If time destroys the evidence of title, the laws have wisely and humanely made length of possession a substitute for that which has been destroyed. He comes with a scythe in one hand to mow down the muniments of our rights; but in his other hand the law-giver has placed an hourglass, by which he metes out incessantly those portions of duration which render needless the evidence that he has swept away."1

A limitation period is a "stated period of time, the expiry of which extinguishes a parties legal remedies and also, in some cases, a parties legal rights".2

Albeit an innocuous and not a well known concept of law, limitations are set in statute as there is no drop-dead limitation period known to the historic common law; hence the alternate name, statute of limitations. However, the common law did develop a mirror concept of laches.

Statute of limitations precludes creditors from collecting on breached contracts should the relevant limitation period have expired before they file their claim in court. It is an absolute defense beneficial to the debtor but the burden of proof of the statute of limitations is with the debtor. In many jurisdictions, the limitation period is shorter for an oral contract then it might be for a written contract.

Sand clockJurisdictions also tend to protect certain agencies like newspapers, hospitals and local governments from protracted exposure to liability by extending to them the benefit of shorter limitation periods

In criminal law, such as in Canada, the common law has recently stepped in and forced upon prosecutors be reasonable period of time in which trial must occur from the date of the alleged offense.

Jurisdictions typically establish set period of time in which a legal action must be commenced, running from the time the cause of action arises, failing which the cause of action is lost.

Because the law is so different on point to detail from jurisdiction to jurisdiction or state to state, the all-important question of "when does the limitations clock start and how to stop it" are complex questions best left to a solicitor or a attorney.

The limitation periods for breach of contract, personal injury or tort, defamation, assault, etc., differ in each jurisdiction. By way of an example, in the Canadian province of British Columbia, the revised statutes include a "Limitation Act" at Chapter 266, s. 3(2), which sets out the following limitation periods, as of 2007:

"After the expiration of 2 years after the date on which the right to do so arose a person may not bring any of the following actions:
  • ... damages in respect of injury to person or property, including economic loss arising from the injury, whether based on contract, tort or statutory duty (except for sexual misconduct); (....)
  • defamation;
  • false imprisonment;
  • malicious prosecution...."

That same piece of legislation sets a limitation period of 10 years for actions for breach of trust or for the return of personal property.

Other jurisdictions propose a basic limitation (such as two years) and work from there.

In his 1835 A Treatise on the Law of Limitations and Prescription, David Gibbons chose this to adorn his title page (galliskins is a defunct word for trousers):

"My Galli-gaskins, that have long withstood

"The winter's fury, and encroaching frosts

"By TIME subdued (what will Time not subdue?)"1

References & Further Reading:

  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Legal Definition of Substantial Awareness Test
  • G. Mew, "The Law of Limitations", 2nd Edition, Butterworths, p. 4 (note 2).
  • Note 1: quoted in Heard, Franklin, Curiosities of The Law Reports (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1871), page 12 and 9.

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