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Statutes of limitations

Statutes of limitations are enactments in a common law legal system that sets the maximum time after an event that legal proceedings based on that event may be initiated. In civil law systems, similar provisions are typically part of the civil code or criminal code and are often known collectively as periods of prescription.


  • The limitation of suits is founded in public convenience; and attended with so much utility, that Courts of Equity adopt this Statute as a positive rule, and apply it, by parity of reason, to cases not within it.
    • Lord Mansfield, Johnson v. Smith (1759), 2 Burr. Part IV., p. 961; reported in James William Norton-Kyshe, Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904), p. 163.
  • This very cause between parties who (on both sides) are strangers to the whole transaction, shews the wisdom of some limitation.
    • Lord Mansfield, Johnson v. Hargreaves (1760), 2 Burr. Part IV., p. 962; reported in James William Norton-Kyshe, Dictionary of Legal Quotations (1904), p. 163.
  • Lacking much historical information and assuming (1) that victims of injustice generally do worse than they otherwise would and (2) that those from the least well-off group in the society have the highest probabilities of being the (descendants of) victims of the most serious injustice who are owed compensation by those who benefited from the injustices, ... then a rough rule of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group ends up least well-off in the society. ... These issues are very complex and are best left to a full treatment of the principle of rectification. In the absence of such a treatment applied to a particular society, one cannot use the analysis and theory presented here to condemn any particular scheme of transfer payments, unless it is clear that no considerations of rectification of injustice could apply to justify it. Although to introduce socialism as the punishment for our sins would be to go too far, past injustices might seem to be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive state in order to rectify them.
  • It has often been matter of regret in modern times that, in the construction of the Statute of Limitations, the decisions had not proceeded upon principles better adapted to carry into effect the real objects of the Statute; that instead of being viewed in an unfavourable light as an unjust and discreditable defence, it had not received such support as would have made it what it was intended to be, emphatically a Statute of repose. It is a wise and beneficial law, not designed merely to raise a presumption of payment of a just debt from lapse of time, but to afford security against stale demands after the true state of the transaction may be forgotten, or be incapable of explanation by reason of the death or removal of witnesses.
    • Joseph Story, Bell v. Morrison, 1 Peters, Sup. C. Rep. (U. S.) 360 (1828).
  • A 'popular libertarian' might ... feel all that needs to be done to bring the world to justice is to institute the minimal state now, starting as it were from present holdings. On this view, then, libertarianism starts tomorrow, and we take the present possession of property for granted.
There is, of course, something very problematic about this attitude. Part of the libertarian position involves treating property rights as natural rights, and so as being as important as anything can be. On the libertarian view, the fact that an injustice is old, and, perhaps, difficult to prove, does not make it any less of an injustice. Nozick, to his credit, appreciates this, and implies that in all cases we should try to work out what would have happened had the injustice not taken place. If the present state of affairs does not correspond to this hypothetical description, then it should be made to correspond.

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