What Is the Statute of Limitations?

A statute of limitations is a law which sets the maximum time in which parties involved have to initiate legal proceedings from the date of an alleged offense, whether civil or criminal. However, the length of time the statute allows for a victim to bring legal action against the suspected wrong-doer can vary from one jurisdiction to another. These laws are based on the principle interest republicae ut finis litium, that is to say, it is in the public interest that there is an end to litigation. See
Atolagbe v. Awuni (I997) 9 NWLR (Pt.522) 66.

Such laws are of two kinds.  There are those, such as the Limitation Laws of some states in Nigeria, where on the expiration of the time, the remedy is barred but not the right. For example, in the case of a simple contract, debt which has remained unpaid and unacknowledged for six years, according to section 8(1) of Lagos State Limitation law, Cap. 118, the creditor’s right to bring an action to recover it is gone but the debt exists for other purposes.  See also section 16 of Limitation law of Rivers state, Cap. 80. The creditor can exercise a right of lien to recover it, but cannot set-off or counterclaim, because this is in the nature of a cross-action. Section 3.

The second category consists of laws, which, on the expiration of the time prescribed, the right itself is barred. Examples of this are sections 15 and 22 of the Limitation Law of Lagos State and sections 1 and 2 of Limitation law of Rivers state, which extinguish the title of the person who has been out of possession of chattel or land for the period of limitation prescribed in the Law.  It is immaterial that he may be ignorant that another is in possession.  See Rains v. Buxton (1880) 14 Ch D  537.  

in  Raleigh Industries Ltd . v Nwaiwu. (1994) 9 NWI.R (Pt.341) 760 at 771, a decision of the Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division, Opene.
“Limitation statutes only take away the right of action from a party without destroying the right since it can be enforced in other ways, for example by exercise of a right of lien”.  In Ojokolobo v. Alamu ,(1987) 3 NWI.R (Pt.61) 377 at 394, the Court accepted that limitation law are matters of practice and procedure only by quoting with approval the observation of Vaughan Williams  L.J in The Ydun (1899) P.236 where dealing with a Statute of Limitation, he observed.

“I also agree that the Act is retrospective, for though, no doubt, the general rule of construction is that “nova constitutio futuris formam imponere  debet non praeteritis, is pointed out in Moon v. Durden (1884)2 EX at 43, that rule of construction yields to a sufficiently expressed intention of the legislature that the enactment shall have a retrospective operation, and there is abundant authority  that the presumption against a retrospective construction has no application to enactment which affect only procedure and practice of the Court.” See Garari v. Johnson (1986) 5 NWLR (Pt.39)66 at 71”.

Limitation law is certainly procedural, setting out clearly time frame within which an action must be brought. Unlike substantive law, it is retroactive in nature and such statutes on this all-important subject must be read as a whole. As such whether specifically stated or not in such a statute, it must be read retroactively. A person should not sleep on his rights. The purport of laws on limitation of actions is to obviate the inconvenience and embarrassment to defendants whose witnesses, be they members of staff or people having dealings with them may no longer be available; and documents for defence must have been out of circulation, in some cases already destroyed and cannot be found in archives or will otherwise take inordinate length of time to locate.

Exceptions to the Application of Limitation Laws.

The law is settled that there are exceptions to the application of the Limitation Laws. In Obot & Ors vs. Shell Petroleum Development Company Nig. Ltd (2013) LPELR-20704 (CA) Pg. 51-52, Para. D – D, the Court held that:

There are some exceptions to the limitation law set by various limitation statutes. These statutory limitations cover cases such as fraud, deliberate concealment by the defendant, or mistake. There are also other circumstances which amount to exceptions to the limitation law. These include circumstances where there is a continuing injury or fresh damage arising from the same injury. Each fresh damage arising from the same injury or continuing injury, gives rise to a fresh cause of action. In Aremo II vs Adekanye (2004) ALL FWLR (PT 224) 2113 at 2132 – 2133 the Supreme Court per Edozie JSC said: … where there has been a continuance of the damage, a fresh cause of action arises from time to time, as often as damage is caused…  For example if the owner of mine works them and causes damage to the surface more than six years before action, and within six years of action, a fresh subsidence causing damage occurs, without any fresh working by the owner, an action in respect of the fresh damage is not barred as the fresh subsidence resulting in injury gives a fresh cause of action…See: also A. G. of Rivers State vs. A. G. of Bayelsa State (2012) LPELR-9336 (SC) per Galadima, JSC; NNPC vs. Zaria & Anor (2014) LPELR-22362 (CA) Pg. 56, Para. E – G.

Again, In Sifax Nigeria Limited & Ors v. Migfo Nigeria Limited & Anor (2015) LPELR-24655 (CA), P., the Supreme court held that; where a statute of limitation prescribes a time frame within which a claimant must file an action in respect of his grievances, time will stop running against the Claimant from the moment an action is commenced. The Court further stated that even where the action is instituted in a court that lacks jurisdiction and is struck out for that reason, the time expended in the wrong court will be discounted for purposes of computation of time under the relevant statute of limitation.

Ogbom Goodluck O, Esq. LLB (Hons), LLM., is a Port Harcourt based legal Practitioner. [email protected]

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