Limitation Law or Statute of Limitation is a Law that restricts the time within which Legal proceedings may be brought. It requires that a Law suit must be commenced within a specific period, failing which the right of action therein becomes extinguished, Otiose or statute barred.
Where a statute prescribes a time-bar within which an action should be commenced, such statute bears the name of Limitation Law. If an aggrieved person exhibits tardiness by suing his wrong doer outside the statutorily allowed time-bracket, his action is usually declared as statute-barred. Thus, an action is statute-barred when no proceedings can be brought to court because the period laid down by the Limitation law has expired by passage of time.
A Limitation Law is a shield or defence that operates at the instance of the defendant. The said defence must be specifically raised in the Defendant’s pleading. However, where a Limitation Law has not been pleaded, it can be raised subsequently at any stage of the proceedings or on appeal because Limitation Law is an issue that goes to the root of jurisdiction of the court. In the case of ADETULA V. AKINYOSOYE (2017) 16 NWLR (PT. 1592) 492 AT 520 PARAS G-H, the court held thus:
“An action challenged on the ground of Limitation Law is to effect
a challenge to jurisdiction and this may be raised without leave
even though it is a new issue of law that may not have been raised
and determined at the trial court.”
Limitation Law removes the right of action of the Plaintiff, although, the Plaintiff may still have a cause of action. The moment the period of Limitation for the commencement of an action expires, the right to employ or use the judicial process of a court of law for the enforcement of a right of action, automatically lapses by operation of the relevant Limitation Law. In that circumstance, no court has the jurisdiction to entertain the action. In the case of C.B.N. V. HARRIS (2017) 11 NWLR (PT. 1575) 54 AT 78-79 PARAS H-A, the Court held thus:
“Limitation Act or Law removes the right of action of a plaintiff, his right of Judicial enforcement and right of judicial relief leaving the Plaintiff with a bare and empty cause of action which he cannot enforce if such a cause of action is found to be statute barred.”
However, there are situations where on the expiration of the time within which the plaintiff may file an action, the remedy maybe barred, but the Plaintiff’s right will not be affected. For example, in the case of a simple contract involving debt which has remained unpaid and unacknowledged for Six years, the Creditor’s right to bring an action to recover it is gone but the debt exists for other purposes to enable the Creditor exercise his right of Lien to recover.
Where a Court of Law gives a decision on the issue of statute barred, such a decision is a matter of law which has nothing to do with equity. If a court holds that an action is statute barred or not statute barred, the only issue that can arise from such a decision is whether the decision is right in law or not. The aggrieved party cannot say that such a decision is right in law but wrong in equity. This was the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of ESUWOYE V. BOSERE (2017) 1 NWLR (PT 1546) 256 AT 293 PARAS C-D.
The law is settled that all the Limitation statutes owe their evolution to considerations founded on public policy. Firstly, there is an ancient and famous principle for its Ubiquity. The principle is expressed in Latin ‘Interest rei Publicae ut sit finis litium’, which means that it is in the public interest that there should be an end to Litigation. In addition to this requirement of public policy in Limitation Law, the law has also taken the view that a Stale claim may not only be unfair to a defendant, it may wreak cruelty on him. The reason is simple, with the vagaries of events, the concatenation of avoidable and unavoidable circumstances and the sheer passage of time, such a defendant stands the chance of losing material pieces of evidence which hitherto, formed part of the formidable arsenal in his defence. Limitation Laws evolve to vouchsafe a defendant.
Therefore, Limitation Laws evolve because of the following reasons
- To protect the defendant against long dormant claims that may have more cruelty than Justice in them.
- Without Limitation Laws, the Defendant maybe forced to face a claim that he might have lost the Evidence to disprove the Plaintiff’s statement of claim.
- The Plaintiff should be diligent to pursue his cause of action.
Furthermore, to determine whether a claim is caught by a statute of limitation, it is necessary to check when the cause of action accrued and the date the suit was filed. A cause of action is said to accrue for the purpose of Limitation Law upon the occurrence of an event whereby a cause of action becomes complete so that the aggrieved party can begin and maintain his cause of action. In the case of INEC V. OGBADIBO LOCAL GOVT (2016) 3 NWLR (PT 1498) 167 AT 197 PARAS C-F, the Court held thus;
“Whether or not a suit was filed within the period stipulated by a Limitation law or is statute-barred is ascertained by the date of the accrued cause of action and the date the suit was filed”.
Also, in the case of OKAFOR V. B.D.U., JOS BRANCH (2017) 5 NWLR (PT 1559) 385 AT 417 PARAS F-G, the Supreme Court held thus;
“in calculating the Limitation period, time begins to run when there is in existence a person who can sue and another who can be sued, and when all the facts have happened which are material to be proved to entitle the plaintiff to succeed.”
Also, the Orthodox judicial formula of measuring Limitation Laws is simple. A court of law is enjoined to examine the filed writ of summons and the statement of claim of which will showcase when the cause of action arose with the period stipulated in the Limitation statute within which to sue.
Limitation Laws are procedural and strict liability Laws that when the period of Limitation begins to run in respect of a cause of action, it cannot generally be broken and it does not cease to run merely because the parties are engaged in negotiation. Although, the law does not prohibit parties to a dispute from engaging in negotiation for the purpose of settling their disputes, however, such negotiation by parties cannot prevent or stop the period of Limitation stipulated by statute from running. Therefore, the best course for a person to whom a right of action has accrued is to institute an action against the other party so as to protect his interest or right in case negotiation fails.
Conclusively, where the limitation of time is imposed by statute, the courts are estopped from extending the time unless that same law makes provision for extension of time. Notwithstanding the strict application of Limitation Laws, the law of Limitation of action recognizes exceptions. The exceptions of Limitation of actions are;
- Where there has been a continuance of damages, a fresh cause of action arises from time to time, as often as damage is caused.
- Where a person is charged before a court over a matter touching on Limitation Law, the period is not calculated until the court delivers its decisions.
- For Public Officers, as soon as a public officer goes outside the scope of authority in the performance of his official duties, an action brought against him in that regard will not be determined by Statute of Limitation
- Disabilities such as mental incapacity, infancy, confinement or incarceration
- Where a party stays abroad.
- Where the wrongful act of the defendant is fraudulently concealed.
- Cases involving personal injury or death.
- Where an action is struck out by the court and re-listed.
- Where there is acknowledgment and part-payment of debts
NOTE: Malice, good faith or ignorance of the law are not defences or exceptions to non-observance of the Limitation clause in a Limitation law.
The effect of statute barred action is for the court to dismiss such an action. Where a court of law orders for striking out of a statute barred action, the order operates as dismissal because the plaintiff’s right to resuscitate the action is otiose and extinguished because of the bare nature of his right in the action.
BY: MIRACLE AKUSOBI, ESQ.