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What are Laches?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 November 2016
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Laches is a defense in civil suits which essentially argues that the plaintiff is not entitled to an equitable remedy because the plaintiff failed to take action in a timely manner. This defense is often compared to the statute of limitations, except that it operates a little bit differently and pertains to civil, not criminal, suits. A plaintiff can respond to this claim by presenting compelling evidence which shows why she or he failed to take action earlier.

For the laches defense to work, it must be demonstrated that a significant amount of time has elapsed, that the plaintiff did not assert a claim at any point during this time, and that the delay is prejudicial in nature. For example, if a property owner is aware that another property owner is straying over the lot line and fails to do anything for three years before abruptly suing, the defendant could use the laches defense and argue that the plaintiff should have done something sooner, like when the problem was recognized.

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Plaintiffs may have reasons they did not act right away. For example, someone may have been unable to act at a prior time due to incapacitation. If someone's rights are violated while that person is in a coma, for example, that person could later bring suit and the delay is not prejudicial because the plaintiff could not bring suit before. Likewise, if someone was ignorant of his or her rights under the law, laches is not an effective defense. In the example above with two property owners, for example, if the first property owner did not know where the lot line was or was misled as to its location and just found out that the neighbor was infringing, the suit may still be considered valid.

Laches is designed to prevent situations in which there is an undue delay between the time that a legal wrong is recognized and the time that someone brings suit. People are encouraged to take action as soon as they are aware of a violation to obtain redress. Failure to exercise legal rights can result in a “you snooze, you lose” scenario as long delays can be prejudicial against the defendant. For instance, if someone wants to sue for wrongful termination 10 years after being dismissed from employment, this puts the employer at a disadvantage as the relevant witnesses and records may be difficult to obtain.

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