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Common law legal systems

The purpose and effect of statutes of limitations are to protect defendants. There are three reasons for their enactment:[

  • A plaintiff with a valid cause of action should pursue it with reasonable diligence.
  • By the time a stale claim is litigated, a defendant might have lost evidence necessary to disprove the claim.
  • Litigation of a long-dormant claim may result in more cruelty than justice.

In Classical Athens, a five-year statute of limitations was established for all cases except homicide and the prosecution of non-constitutional laws (which had no limitation). Demosthenes wrote that these statutes of limitations were adopted to control “sycophants” (professional accusers).[

The limitation period generally begins when the plaintiff’s cause of action accrues, meaning the date upon which the plaintiff is first able to maintain the cause of action in court, or when the plaintiff first becomes aware of a previous injury (for example, occupational lung diseases such as asbestosis).