1902 Encyclopedia > Statutes of Limitation

Statutes of Limitation




STATUTES OF LIMITATION are Acts of Parliament by which rights of action are limited to a fixed period after the occurrence of the events giving rise to the cause of action. This is one of the devices by which lapse of time is employed to settle disputed claims. There are mainly two modes by which this may be effected. We may say that the active enjoyment of a right—or possession—for a deter-mined period shall be a good title against all the world. That is the method known generally as PRESCRIPTION (q.v.). It looks to the length of time during which the defendant in a disputed claim has been in possession or enjoyment of the matter in dispute. On the other hand, the principle of the statutes of limitation is to look to the length of time during which the plaintiff has been out of possession. The point of time at which he might first have brought his action having been ascertained, the lapse of the limited period after that time bars him for ever from bringing his action. In both cases the policy of the law is expressed by the maxim Interest reipublicx tit sit finis litium.

The principle of limitation was first adopted in English law in connexion with real actions, i.e., actions for the recovery of real property. At first a fixed date was taken, and no action could be brought of which the cause had arisen before that date. By the Statute of Westminster the First (3 Edward I. c. 39), the beginning of the reign of Richard I. was fixed as the date of limitation for such actions. This is the well known " period of legal memory " recognized by the judges in a different class of cases to which a rule of prescription was applied. Posses-sion of rights in alieno solo from time immemorial was held to be an indefeasible title, and the courts following the statutes above mentioned held time immemorial to begin with the first year of Richard I.

A period absolutely fixed became in course of time useless for the purposes of limitation, and at last the method of counting back a certain number of years from the date of the writs was adopted in the Statute 32 Henry VIIL c. 2, which fixed periods of thirty, fifty, and sixty years for various classes of actions named therein. A large number of statutes since that time have established periods of limitation for different kinds of actions. Of those now in force the most important are 21 James I. c. 16 for personal actions in general, and 3 & 4 Will. IV. c. 27 relating to actions for the recovery of land. The latter statute has been repealed and virtually re-enacted by the Real Property Limitation Act, 1874, which reduced the period of limitation from twenty years to twelve, for all actions brought after the 1st January 1879. The principal section of the Act of Will. IV. will show the modus operandi:—" After the 31st December 1833, no person shall make an entry or distress, or bring an action to recover any land or rent but within twenty years next after the time at which the right- to make such entry or distress or to bring such action shall have first accrued to some person through whom he claims, or shall have first accrued to the person making or bringing the same." Another section defines the times at which the right of action or entry shall be deemed to have accrued in particular cases; e.g., when the estate claimed shall have been an estate-or interest in reversion, such right shall be deemed to have first accrued at the time at which such estate or interest became an estate or interest in possession. Thus suppose lands to be let by A to B from 1830 for a period of fifty years, and that a portion of such lands is occupied by C from 1831 without any colour of title from B or A—C's long possession would be of no avail against an action brought by A for the recovery of the land after the determination of B's lease. A would have twelve years after the determination of the lease within which to bring his action, and might thus, by an action brought in 1891, disestablish a person who had been in quiet posses-sion since 1831. What the law looks to is not the length of time during which C has enjoyed the property, but the length of time which A has suffered to elapse since he might first have brought his action.

It is to be observed, however, that the Real Property Limitation Act does more than bar the remedy. It extin-guishes the right, differing in this respect from the other Limitation Acts, which, while barring the remedy, preserve the right, so that it may possibly become available in some other way than by action.

By section 14 of the Act of Will. IV., "when any acknowledgment of the title of the person entitled shall have been given to him or his agent in writing signed by the person in possession, or in receipt of the profits or rent, then the right of the person (to whom such acknowledgment shall have been given) to make an entry or distress or bring an action shall be deemed to have first accrued at the time at which such acknowledgment, or the last of such acknowledgments, was given. By section 15, persons under the disability of infancy, lunacy, or coverture, or beyond seas, and their representatives, are to be allowed ten years from the termination of this disability, or death (which shall have first happened), notwithstanding that the ordinary period of limitation shall have expired.

By 21 James I. c. 16, actions of trespass, detinue, trover, replevin, or account, actions on the case (except for slander), actions of debt arising out of a simple contract, and actions for arrears of rent not due upon specialty, shall be limited to six years from the date of the cause of action. Actions for assault, menace, battery, wounds, and imprisonment are limited to four years, and actions for slander to two years. Persons labouring under disabilities are allowed the same time after the removal of the disability. When the defendant is " beyond seas " (i.e., outside the United Kingdom and the adjacent islands) a similar extension of time is allowed.

An acknowledgment, whether by payment on account or by mere spoken words, was formerly sufficient to take the case out of the statute. The Act 9 Geo. IV. c. 14 (Lord Tenterden's Act) requires any promise or admission of liability to be in writing and signed by the party to be charged, otherwise it will not bar the statute.

Contracts under seal are governed as to limitation by 3 & 4 William IV. c. 42, which provides that actions for rent upon any indenture of demise, or of covenant, or debt, or any bond or other specialty, and on recognizances, must be brought within twenty years after cause of action. Actions of debt on an award (the submission being not under seal), or for a copyhold fine, or for money levied on a writ of fieri facias, must be brought within six years.

Of the miscellaneous limitations fixed by various Acts, the following may be noticed. Suits and indictments under penal statutes are limited to two years if the forfeiture is to the crown, to one year if the forfeiture is to the common informer. Penal actions by persons aggrieved are limited to two years (3 & 4 Will. IV. c. 42). Actions brought against a justice of the peace for acts done in the execution of his office are limited to six calendar months (11 & 12 Vict. c. 44). Acts done under any local or personal Act of Parliament can only be sued upon within two years (5 & 6 Vict. c. 97).

A defence under the statutes of limitations must in general be specially pleaded. Limitation is regarded strictly as a law of procedure. The English courts will therefore apply their own rules to all actions, although the cause of action may have arisen in a country in which different rules of limitation exist. This is also a recognized principle of private international law.

United States.—The principle of the statute of limitations has passed with some modification into the statute-books of every State in the Union except Louisiana, whose laws of limitation are essentially the prescriptions of the civil law drawn from the Partidas, or "Spanish Code." As to personal actions, it is generally provided that they shall be brought within a certain specified time—usually six years or less—-from the time when the cause of action accrues, and not after, while for land the "general if not universal limitation of the right to bring action or to make entry is to twenty years after the right to enter or to bring the action accrues " (Bouvier's Law Dictionary, art. "Limitations"). The constitutional provision prohibiting States from passing laws impairing the obligation of contracts is not infringed by a law of limitations, unless it bars a right of action already accrued without giving a reasonable term within which to bring the action. (E. E.)







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