The Criminal Procedure Act 2009 contains the rules on when charges must be laid. If police or the charging authority miss the deadline, the accused person has the defence that the charges are statute barred. This is how the statute of limitations work in criminal law.
This defence has various considerations, such as the time limit or the length of time that can be allowed to pass from the time the offence was committed to the time of filing a case.
For summary offences, the rule generally speaking is that police have 12 months from the date of the alleged offending to lay the charges. Laying charges involves filing them with the court and ensuring they are properly served on the accused. Failure to do this within the 12-month timeframe could mean the charges are statute barred and this is a complete defence – you don’t even need to explain yourself in relation to the offending.
There are two exceptions to this rule when it comes to summary offences:
- The Act that the charge comes from provides a different deadline i.e. ‘limitation’;
- The accused and prosecution give written consent to the proceeding being initiated after the deadline / 12-month period.1
Indictable charges can be laid any time, there is no statutory time limit that the police need to meet in order for the charges to be valid.
Again, there is an exception to the rule – some indictable charges do come with a statutory deadline and these are specified in the relevant Act itself.
Also, there are some indictable offences that can be heard and determined summarily i.e. in the Magistrates’ Court instead of the County Court. Even though they can be heard summarily, it doesn’t mean they have the 12-month deadline that attaches to summary offences.
These limitations are aimed at fairness. You have this defence because if the charges are laid out of time, it is unfair.
The longer charges take to be laid, the longer the delay is that an accused person can start responding to the case. This might mean it makes it harder for them to remember where they were that day, who they were with, what they were doing etc. It also might mean that witnesses write their statement months or years later which is likely to become less accurate as time goes on. Often an innocent person has no recollection of an incident because they had no reason to remember details of it.
The defence that charges are statute barred is a very technical defence and involves applying criminal statute to the details of a charge.
It is therefore important to have an experienced criminal defence lawyer look over your case in order to determine whether this defence is available to you. If it does apply, it may result in the charges being discontinued at an early stage or your being found not guilty of the offences.