Statutes Of Limitations Research Paper

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1. Definition

Statutes of limitations are procedural rules that limit legal actions on the basis of time. They derive from both legislative and judicial sources and exist in many continental and non-continental legal systems. Specifically, they regulate the amount of time that a potential plaintiff has to initiate a formal legal claim. In general, once a statute of limitation expires, a plaintiff cannot press a particular legal claim, regardless of its underlying substantive merits.

It is important to distinguish statutes of limitations from the closely related yet distinct common law doctrine of ‘laches.’ The doctrine of laches vests courts with discretionary authority to determine whether a plaintiff, while commencing a legal action within the time requirements set forth by the relevant statute of limitations, nonetheless has unreasonably delayed bringing a lawsuit to the detriment of a defendant (Heriot 1992). Both statutes of limitations and the doctrine of laches limit a plaintiff’s access to court.

2. Purposes

Statutes of limitations seek to reconcile numerous individual and social interests. These interests, broadly construed, include a desire for an orderly legal system that resolves claims promptly, efficiently, and equitably and also promotes legal stability.

Within the context of litigation, these general interests become more individualized, acute, and particularized. Plaintiffs benefit from having a reasonable amount of time within which to press a legal claim. Some amount of time is necessary so that a potential plaintiff can contemplate possible litigation and gather and assess evidence that will inform a decision about whether to pursue formal legal remedies. Statutes of limitations induce plaintiffs to pursue legal claims diligently and promptly by punishing those who do not by foreclosing the opportunity to pursue a legal claim. Also, defendants have a legitimate interest in repose as well as not having to defend against ‘stale’ claims. Moreover, defendants should not be disadvantaged in court due to lost evidence, faded memories, and the disappearance of witnesses—all possibilities that increase with the passage of time.

Numerous social interests cut in different directions. It is, of course, well known that societies benefit when their judicial systems vindicate their members’ legal rights. Other social interests include a desire for a secure and stable legal system. Moreover, a desire to minimize court congestion is shared by many. Finally, the probability of legal error increases when plaintiffs wait too long before commencing legal action and degrade components critical to a fair, just, and thorough trial.

3. History And Development

Statutes of limitations have existed for centuries; scholars trace the origins of statutes of limitations to the early days of Roman Law (Lowenthal 1950). By 1236 in England, statutes of limitations governing the transfer of property were enacted (Pollock and Maitland 1898). During the reign of Henry VIII, Parliament passed legislation establishing some time limits that affected real property transfers (Heriot 1992). The Limitation Act of 1623 marks the advent of the first systematic and reasonably effective rules governing time limitations for commencing legal actions. Notably, the Act expressly tolled limits for, among others, infants as well as the aged, imprisoned, and infirm. In addition, the Act codified the common law doctrine of adverse possession which generally provides an individual with legal title to property that the individual has occupied openly, notoriously, and continuously for a prescribed period of time. The Act also marks the beginning of the modern law of limitations governing personal actions in common law (Lowenthal 1950) and served as the model adopted by many American legislatures (Heriot 1992).

Statutes of limitations are found in many common law and non-common law settings. In common law settings, such as the United States, a recent survey of California law uncovered more than 32,000 statutes of limitations (or time-limiting bars) in that state alone (Montoya 1996). These enactments provide insights into a legal system’s moral and ethical orientation, and in particular, their preference for human life issues over legal claims relating to other issues. In California, for example, statutes of limitations for slander or libel claims typically prevent any such claim being initiated more than one year after the action. On the other hand, there is no statutory limit whatsoever for murder.

Statutes of limitations are found in non-common law settings as well. For example, general 30-year statutes of limitation for civil actions operate in France and Germany (Martindale-Hubbell 2000). Of course, deviations from the general rule peculiar to each country also exist. In Germany, a general four-year statute of limitation governs certain business claims; three years for tort actions (Martindale-Hubbell 2000). In France, a ten-year limit governs most tort actions; a two-year limitation bounds claims on most insurance policies (Martindale-Hubbell 2000).

4. Rationale

Reflecting statutes of limitations’ effort to reconcile conflicting principles, rationales advanced by scholars justifying such statutes vary. Both efficiency and equity (or ‘fairness’) emerge in the literature as common rationales for statutes of limitations (see, for example, Lowenthal 1950). Epstein (1986) advances a utilitarian justification that, in a world where everyone has an equal probability of being a plaintiff or defendant, the application of statutes of limitations and the resulting reduction in legal error, administrative and transaction costs bring about a net gain for the benefit of all.

5. Criticisms

Most critics of statutes of limitations focus on three points. One critique dwells on the particular time limits imposed on particular legal claims (see, for example, Bibas 1994, Thomas 1991). A second critique focuses on the operation of statutes of limitations, especially on when time limits begin to run against a possible plaintiff (see, for example, Glimcher 1982). A third, broader critique flows from the courts’ application of time limits in a ‘rule-like’ manner. Some critics of the rule-like application of statutes of limitations advance as one alternative administration by judges on a case-by-case basis (see, for example, Richardson 1997).

However, even most critics recognize that a rule-like application of statutes of limitations yields certain advantages. Such an application provides benefits from the fact that it is comparatively easy to administer, since decisions depend on a limited number of ascertainable facts and results can often be predicted ex ante. Moreover, well-crafted statutes convey in advance clear requirements for those contemplating pressing legal claims. Finally, a rule-like application of statutes of limitations reduces the potential for judicial abuse of discretionary powers.

Problems with statutes of limitations arise when the application of rules generates difficult or inequitable results. Critics point to such results as evidence for a more flexible application of statutes of limitations and for a close examination, case-by-case, of the way in which a particular application advances or impedes the underlying rationale for the time limits.

A case-by-case or individualized (i.e., non-rule-based) approach to applying statutes of limitations possesses certain advantages. Principally, this discretionary approach permits a closer examination of whether a specific claim falls within the range of difficulties that statutes of limitations were designed to address. Judicial discretion can reduce the possibility of injustice generated by a mechanical application of a statute of limitation. Ironically, greater judicial discretion in the application of such rules as statutes of limitations entails costs as well as benefits, because they generate greater uncertainty and thus increase the danger of judicial abuse.

Over one hundred years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1897) asked, ‘What is the justification for depriving a man of his rights, a pure evil as far as it goes, in consequence of the lapse of time?’ Justice Holmes’ rhetorical question highlights a general ambivalence surrounding statutes of limitations and their applications (Ochoa and Winstrich 1997).

Benefits flowing from the application of statutes of limitations are frequently long-term and sometimes difficult to discern. In contrast, the costs imposed by statutes of limitations are short-term and more immediate and visceral. By seeking to reconcile critical principles that sometimes collide in litigation, statutes of limitations generate ambivalence and unease which weakens—but by no means dislodges—their secure and long-standing position in many—if not most— legal systems.


  1. Bibas S A 1994 The case against statutes of limitations for stolen art. Yale Law Journal 103: 2437–69
  2. Epstein R A 1986 Past and future: The temporal dimension in the law of property. Washington University Law Quarterly 64: 667–722
  3. Glimcher S D 1982 Statutes of limitations and the discovery rule in latent injury claims: An exception of the law? University of Pittsburgh Law Review 43: 501–23
  4. Heriot G L 1992 A study in the choice of forum: Statutes of limitation and the doctrine of Laches. Brigham Young University Law Review 1992: 917–70
  5. Holmes O W 1897 The path of the law. Harvard Law Review 10: 457–78
  6. Lowenthal M A 1950 Developments in the Law: Statutes of Limitations. Harvard Law Review 63: 1177–270
  7. Martindale-Hubbell International Law Digest 2000
  8. Montoya J M 1996 California statutes of limitations. South-western University School of Law 25: 745–1373
  9. Ochoa T T, Winstrich A J 1997 The puzzling purposes of statutes of limitations. Pacific Law Journal 28: 453–514
  10. Pollock F, Maitland F W 1898 The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK (Ledlie’s translation)
  11. Richardson E J 1997 Eliminating the limitations of limitations law. Arizona State Law Journal 29: 1015–74
  12. Thomas R L 1991 Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and statutes of limitations: A call for legislative action. Wake Forest Law Review 26: 1245–95
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