What Is the Statute of Limitations?

by Team eLocal
Court and civil law concept. Crowd of people and judge gavel.

Laws pertaining to both civil and criminal cases are often complex. One of those complicating factors is the timeframe in which you’re allowed to take legal action.

Understanding what the statute of limitations is can help you determine your rights in a situation that could involve litigation or criminal charges.

What Is the Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum timeframe within which civil or criminal legal proceedings can be started. The clock can start when the alleged offense takes place or when it is discovered. Once that designated time passes, under these statutes, the defendant can't face legal action for the crime.

The statute of limitations encourages plaintiffs to file claims quickly instead of drawing out a potential case. It also encourages faster litigation while facts and evidence can still be gathered easily. If someone files a lawsuit years after something happens, it can be difficult for the defendant to find evidence to prove their innocence, and witnesses might no longer remember the situation clearly.

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How Does It Apply in Civil and Criminal Cases?

Most types of civil cases are subject to a statute of limitations, which means the plaintiff has to file the claim before the timeframe passes, or they can't take legal action.

Statutes of limitations apply to many criminal offenses as well, but more serious crimes often don't fall under a statute of limitations. That includes violent offenses like murder or rape. For a criminal offense, the statute of limitations establishes the timeframe in which the offender must be charged with a crime.

The length of time designated under a statute of limitations often varies based on the offense. Different jurisdictions determine the statute of limitations for different crimes, so the length can vary based on where you live. For example, personal injury cases could have a statute of limitations anywhere from one to six years based on the jurisdiction. The time you have to sue someone for breach of contract could range from three to 15 years. There are both state and federal statutes of limitations for different types of offenses.

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