People sometimes find themselves charged with a crime they allegedly committed a long time ago.
Even if the offense was committed a long time ago, as long as it is within the statute of limitations, the involved parties can still take legal action.
The statute of limitations is a law that sets the maximum time period in which legal proceedings have to be initiated, from the date of the alleged offense. This means that there is a maximum period in which charges can be brought against you. When the statute of limitations has expired, you cannot be charged for the crime.
In New South Wales, the Limitation Act 1969 operates as a form of protection for the defendant. It is a statutory bar preventing a person from bringing charges after a substantially long period of time. This is to discourage delayed litigation, as issues could arise with the availability and accuracy of evidence or witnesses when a long time has passed. Hence, the limitation period was implemented to bring about equity and justice to all parties and the effective administration of justice.
Depending on the seriousness of the crime, the statute of limitations differs. For heinous crimes such as murder and sexual assault, the statute of limitations no longer applies. Instead, the Limitation Act 1969 has more impact on minor offenses rather than serious offenses.
Limitation Period for Minor Offenses
Minor offenses can also be known as summary offenses, which are usually considered to be less serious offenses. Listed in the Summary Offences Act of NSW 1998, they cover a range of traffic-related offenses or petty crimes which include offensive conduct, indecent exposure, possession of liquor by minors and obstruction of traffic.
Due to the milder nature of the offense, summary offenses are dealt with quickly. Hence, the limitation period for summary offenses is six months after the cause of action, according to Section 179 of the Criminal Procedure Act.
Summary offenses are heard by a magistrate alone, rather than a judge and jury. In NSW, summary offenses have a penalty of up to two years. There are other potential penalties including fines, community service, suspension, home detention or good behavior bonds.
There can be some confusion regarding whether you have been charged with a summary offense or indictable offense, which have two very different outcomes.
Summary offenses are generally not as serious as indictable offenses. Heard in higher court, in front of a judge and jury, indictable offenses have more severe penalties. Hence, it is imperative that you seek the help of a criminal lawyer if needed to find out whether you’ve been charged with a summary offense or indictable offense.
However, the six month limitation period does not always stand for all summary cases. There are instances where the indictable offense is heard in a local court in front of the magistrate if it is not too serious – the indictable offense is dealt with as a summary offense. But the offense is still considered an indictable one, which means that the limitation time period can be up to two years.
Also, if the summary offense has caused someone’s death, the limitation period might be extended. A coroner’s report is required to be conducted, hence, the time period can last to a maximum of six months post-coronial-inquest.
Furthermore, the six-months cannot be applied if the specific offense is subject to a different time frame according to the law.
Such as, in accordance with Section 37A of the Fines Act 1996, traffic offenses where a penalty notice has been issued and the person charged chooses to bring the matter to court, have a limitation period of 12 months rather than the usual six months.
Some summary offenses are conducted on a case-by-case basis. It is possible for the police to maneuver around the usual six-month time frame and still press charges if the alleged offense seems to be ongoing, as it is often so in drug cases.
Summary offenses are still considered criminal offenses. If you are found guilty, you will have a criminal conviction that will appear on your employment records, affecting your future job prospects even though the offense was a minor one. Although not as severe as an indictable offense, it is still important to take any summary offense charge seriously.
Limitation Period of Indictable Offenses
For indictable offenses, there is no statute of limitation in place in the NSW. Therefore, given that there is a strong case against you, it is possible to be charged with the offense you have allegedly committed, regardless of how long ago it happened.
This is often the case for serious sexual offenses, where a charge is possible against the defendants and they have to face a trial, although the offense occurred a long time ago. Many victims do not report the abuse or assault until decades later, due to shame, stigma, or trauma, hence charges could take place decades later.
However, it can be hard for the prosecution to gather enough evidence to build a strong case if too much time has elapsed. With the passage of time, it is highly likely that evidence was destroyed, memories lost, and witnesses are difficult to locate. It is much more difficult to charge a person with an indictable offense if it was committed years ago.
The situation is similarly unfavorable to the defendants. After all, memories deteriorate. Defendants can face many difficulties in refuting the alleged offense since they might not be able to provide an alibi. Trying to prove your whereabouts of an exact day years ago would be extremely tough, and it is best to seek legal expertise if you are facing a criminal charge.
Should you be charged for something that happened more than six months prior, your best bet is to seek out an experienced criminal defense lawyer. By checking the statute of limitations for the specific offense, the matter might be resolved if charges were pressed after the limitation time period. Charges will have to be withdrawn and you will not have to appear in court. It is possible that the police might even have to pay for your legal costs.