Imposing time limits for enforcement

Imposing time limits on enforcement action for breaches of legislation involves balancing two strong public interests:

  • the prompt enforcement of legislative sanctions or disposal of civil claims; and
  • ensuring that someone who has committed a serious unlawful act does not escape punishment because their actions remained undetected for many years.

The passage of time may mean that a person finds it hard to defend him or herself against a civil claim, a criminal charge, an infringement notice, or a pecuniary penalty. Key witnesses may be dead, documents lost, or witnesses’ memories faded. Also, key forensic evidence may have been destroyed.

In such cases, any delay in bringing proceedings may mean that the defendant finds it hard to present a full defence or otherwise respond to allegations. This may compromise the person’s right to a fair hearing. In the commercial context, there are also financial implications for businesses or people if they are subject to the open-ended possibility of civil claims.

Limitation periods balance an individual’s right to a fair hearing, the need for legal certainty in business and private life, entitlements to compensation, and the public interest in seeing unlawful or otherwise wrongful conduct addressed.

Part 1

Are new or amended criminal offences subject to a limitation period?

The limitation periods in the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 should apply to all new criminal offences.

Section 25 of the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 provides a standard set of time limits by which a criminal prosecution must be brought after an offence is committed. The limitation periods differ subject to the category of offence and the maximum penalty that can be imposed. The most serious offences (category 4) have no limitation period.

Strong policy reasons that are particular to the circumstances of the legislation must be present to justify a departure from the rules in the Criminal Procedure Act 2011 and legal advice should be sought.

The time within which an agency may issue an enforcement notice for an infringement offence is limited in practice by the requirements of section 21 of the Summary Proceedings Act 1957 (which should apply to all new infringement offences). Under section 21(5), if the agency wishes to enforce an unpaid infringement notice through the court, it must provide particulars of the reminder notice to the court within 6 months from the date on which the infringement offence is alleged to have been committed.

Part 2

Are new civil proceedings subject to a limitation period?

The limitation periods in the Limitation Act 2010 should apply to all new civil proceedings.

The Limitation Act 2010 provides a generic set of time limits (and exceptions to those limits) that apply to civil claims. The Limitation Act sets limitation periods in respect of a variety of civil claims (such as money claims, land claims, and claims relating to wills or judgments of awards). Legal advisers should be consulted to establish whether or not the particular civil proceeding relied on falls within the Limitation Act.

The limitation periods in the Limitation Act apply to those claims it covers unless another enactment expressly provides for another limitation period or otherwise sets a deadline by which a claim must be made. Good policy reasons that are particular to the circumstances of the legislation must be present to justify a departure from the Limitation Act.

Part 3

Are new pecuniary penalties subject to a limitation period?

The limitation period for pecuniary penalties (non-criminal monetary penalties imposed by a court in civil proceedings) will be the limitation period in the Limitation Act unless the legislation provides otherwise. In every case, officials should consider whether that period is appropriate. Further guidance for the setting of a limitation period for pecuniary penalties can be found in Chapter 26.

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