The doctrine of laches is a legal defense that may be claimed in a civil matter, which asserts that there has been an unreasonable delay in pursuing the claim (filing the lawsuit), which has prejudiced the defendant, or prevents him from putting on a defense. The doctrine of laches is an equitable defense that seeks to prevent a party from ambushing someone else by failing to make a legal claim in a timely manner. Because it is an equitable remedy, laches is a form of estoppel. To explore this concept, consider the following doctrine of laches definition.
Definition of Laches
Pronounced la–ches (like “latches”)
- Undue delay in asserting a legal right or privilege.
- Failure to bring a legal claim in the proper, or a reasonable, time.
1325-1375 Middle English lachesse
Purpose of the Doctrine of Laches
The doctrine of laches is based on the adage that “equity aids the vigilant and not those who sleep on their rights.” In many situations, a delay in filing a lawsuit has the effect of preventing the opposing party from putting on a fair defense. This is because witnesses go their ways, evidence disappears, and memories falter. If a plaintiff has knowledge of a problem that might be the subject of a legal dispute, but puts off asserting his claim for an unreasonable amount of time, he may be barred from recovering on his claim at all.
Lisa has a legitimate claim of sexual harassment against her college history professor, but she waits six years to file a lawsuit. During that time, the professor has moved to teach in another state, other students who may have been witnesses have scattered to go on with their lives, and the school’s administration has even seen major changes.
Both the professor and the college administration may claim the doctrine of laches in their affirmative defenses to the lawsuit. This essentially tells the court that, because Lisa allowed too much time to pass without filing a claim, they have been put in an unfair position, as it will be extremely difficult to put on a defense this many years after the alleged incident. If the defendants can convince the judge that they are unable to find witnesses and evidence to defend their positions, he may dismiss the case based on the doctrine of laches.
Difference Between Laches and Statute of Limitations
While the doctrine of laches appears, on its surface, to be the same as a statute of limitations, the two are different in a number of ways. A statute of limitations is a definitive time limit set by law in which an individual may make a legal claim, or a prosecutor may file criminal charges.
The statute of limitations in Arkansas for rape is six years. Seven years after being raped at a college party, Stephanie reports the crime to the district attorney, asking that charges be filed against her rapist. Because the crime occurred after the six-year time limit, no criminal charges can be filed against Stephanie’s attacker.
While the purpose of both laches and statutes of limitations is to ensure legal claims are brought in a reasonable time period, so that evidence and reliable witnesses can easily be found, statutes of limitations are only concerned with whether the statutory time period has lapsed. The doctrine of laches, however, is most concerned with the reasonableness of a delay in filing a legal action. This means that laches is case-specific, relying on the judge’s determination of whether a plaintiff simply waited so long that the defendant cannot put on a reasonable defense.
When Steven buys the property next door to Harold, he hires a contractor to begin construction of a new house. Harold is pretty sure the attached garage is on his property line, but he doesn’t say anything. Four years later, Harold has a disagreement with Steven, and decides to pull out his original survey documents to prove that Steven’s house is actually on his side of the property line by eight inches.
Harold files a civil lawsuit, seeking to be paid for that portion of his property that now sits underneath Steven’s garage. In his defense, Steven’s attorney claims an affirmative defense of laches, pointing out that, in his own complaint, Harold admits he knew the construction was over the line while it was taking place. If Harold had brought this to Steven’s, or the contractor’s, attention at that time, the construction could have been moved over.
While, in this case, evidence of the garage’s location has not been compromised, the option of moving the building is not reasonable, and it is likely the judge would find that neither is expecting the defendant to purchase an eight-inch strip of Harold’s property. Harold did not wait very many years to assert his claim, but failing to file his lawsuit until after the garage was built, even though he had knowledge of the problem beforehand, is unreasonable.
Asserting a Defense of Laches
In order to successfully claim laches as a defense, the defendant must prove that his status has changed because of the unreasonable delay in filing the lawsuit, causing him to be in a worse position than at the time the claim should have been filed. For instance, delaying the claim may have resulted in:
- Potential award of damages being much larger
- An inability to pay monetary damages due to assets being used or sold in the meantime
- Property the plaintiff seeks to recover has been sold
- Witness testimony or evidence no longer being available
Ballot Case Dismissed on the Basis of Laches
At the beginning of the 2012 U.S. presidential election, several Republican candidates failed to get their names on Virginia’s primary election ballot on time, because they failed to submit the 10,000 signatures required by December 22, 2011. Four of the candidates whose names were left off the ballot – Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, and Rick Santorum – filed a civil lawsuit on December 27, 2011. The candidates claimed that the state’s statutory restrictions on who is allowed to collect signatures was unconstitutional.
The federal district court dismissed the candidates’ claim on the basis of laches, denying their request for relief. The court pointed out that, rather than filing the claim as soon as the problem was discovered in the summer of 2011, they waited until after the deadline for submitting petition signatures had passed.
The court concluded that the candidates’ delay in bringing the action “displayed an unreasonable and inexcusable lack of diligence” on their part, which “has significantly harmed the defendants.” The court specifically concluded that the delay in filing the suit had harmed the election board by turning its normally orderly schedule for printing and mailing ballots “into a chaotic attempt to get absentee ballots out on time.”
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Affirmative Defense – The introduction of evidence in a trial that would negate, or “cancel out,” the defendant’s civil or criminal legal responsibility for the alleged act.
- Civil Lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Equitable Remedy – An action ordered by the court for a party to complete his duties under a contract. This is most often used when an award of money damages cannot sufficiently rectify the damages.
- Estoppel – A legal principle that prevents, or “stops,” someone from asserting a fact that is contradictory to an already established truth.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.