A statute of limitations is a time limit that sets forth the maximum period of time after an event that legal proceedings based on that event may be initiated. In common law systems, the statute of limitations is pronounced by legislation and will normally vary according to the type of crime in question. In civil law systems, similar provisions are normally embodied in the civil or criminal code and are called Periods of prescription or Prescriptive periods.
The statute of limitations is meant to serve the interests of social justice, allowing for lesser crimes from long ago to be passed over so limited judicial resources can focus on contemporary crimes. Additionally, statutory time limites on prosecution are designed to prevent fraudulent or stale claims from arising after evidence has been lost or facts have become obscure. More serious crimes tend to have a longer statute of limitations, allowing for prosecution well after the commission of the criminal act and reflecting the notion that certain actions should not go unpunished, no matter how long they take to come to light.
In a common law system, the statute of limitations is a defense that must be raised by the defendant. If the statutory period is shown to have lapsed, then the defense will succeed and the prosecution will cease. In civil law systems, the impetus is placed upon the prosecutor to commence a criminal action within the period of prescription. Failure to do so will result in an inability to prosecute.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides for a limited mistake of fact defense. Article 29 reads:
“The crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court shall not be subject to any statute of limitations.”
Article 29 reflects the progress of customary international law towards the imprescriptibility of core crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity. The absence of any statute of limitations for crimes within ICC jurisdiction not only means that the ICC can prosecute crimes against humanity regardless of when they occurred, but also that any national laws of signatories will have no bearing on the ICC’s investigation and prosecution process.
Similarly, the Convention on the Non-Applicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity proscribes the applicability of statutory time limitations to crimes against humanity, including war crimes whether committed during times of war or peace, ‘grave breaches’ of the Geneva Convention on war victims and the crime of genocide. Signatory nations agree to take all necessary domestic legislative and executive action to assist in the prosecution of these war crimes
Country Specific Applications
The Code of Criminal Procedure § 456 provides that “[t]he right of prosecution for murder or treason shall not be barred by any length of time, but the right of prosecution for any other crime or offence (save and except those as to which special provision is or shall be made by law) shall be barred by the lapse of twenty years from the time when the crime or offence shall have been committed.”
A majority of states have a statute of limitations for all crimes except murder. The statute of limitations helps to protect against unreasonable delays in prosecution as required under the U.S. Constitution’s speedy trial clause in Amendment VI. Different statutes of limitations apply to different crimes based on their classification as either felonies or misdemeanors and the time limit generally starts to run from the date that the offense was committed, not from the date of the event’s discovery. Statutes of limitations also vary from state to state and amongst the federal criminal system as well.
- Code of Criminal Procedure (No. 15 of 1979), available at http://www.lawnet.lk/process.php?st=1981Y2V26C&hword=%27%27&path=5
- See http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL31253.pdf for further discussion of federal statutes of limitations