The statute of limitation
Each Australian jurisdiction has a
limitation statute setting out the rules governing the period of time in which
a plaintiff must commence a civil proceeding. However, the statutes do not
cover the field. For example, some classes of action may be specifically
excluded from the limitation statute,
some actions may be governed by other legislation.
The general limitation statutes in
each jurisdiction are:
Act 1985 (ACT): Actions for tortious claims must be commenced within six
years. The extension provisions are similar to those in the Victorian
legislation. They apply only to actions for personal injury. The only
additional factor which must be considered by the court in deciding whether to
allow an application for extension is the conduct of the defendant after the
cause of action accrued to the plaintiff.
Act 1969 (NSW):Actions for tortious claims must be commenced within six
years. However, personal injury actions accruing on or after 1 September 1990
must be commenced within three years. There are three sets of provisions in the
NSW limitation legislation governing extension of the limitation period. One
applies to causes of action for personal injury accruing prior to 1 September
1990; another applies to actions for personal injury accruing on or after 1
September 1990 and the third deals with actions for personal injury whenever
arising, provided there was latent injury involved.
Act 1971 (NT): Actions for tortious claims must be commenced within three
years. Extension provisions in the Northern Territory are very similar to those
in South Australian legislation.
of Actions Act 1974 (Qld): Actions for tortious claims, where the damages claimed
do not consist of or include damages in respect of personal injury, must be
commenced within six years. Actions must be brought in three years for damages
of negligence, trespass, nuisance or breach of duty (whether the duty exists by
virtue of a contract or a provision made by or under a statute or otherwise) in
which the damages claimed consist of or include damages for personal injury or
for the injury resulting form the death of any person. Extension of time for
the commencement of an action can be given if a material fact of a decisive
character relating to the right of action was not within the plaintiff’s means
of knowledge until some time after the commencement of the final year of the
limitation period and there is evidence to establish the right of action apart
from a defence based on the expiration of the limitation period.
of Actions Act 1936 (SA): Actions for tortious claims must be commenced
within six years, except for actions for personal injuries where the
application limit is three years. A court may extend the time for instituting
an action; doing any act or taking any step in an action; and doing any act or
taking any step with a view to instituting an action. An extension of time may
be granted only if, in all the circumstances, it is just to do so, and provided
one of two circumstances are met.
Act 1974 (Tas): Actions for tortious claims must be commenced within six
years. A Court may extend the time for bringing a personal injuries action or a
dependency claim for such period as the court thinks necessary, provided the
extension does not exceed six years from when the cause of action accrued. The
court must be satisfied that, in all the circumstances, it is just and
reasonable to permit the extension of time.
of Actions Act 1958 (Vic): Actions for tortious claims must be commenced
within six years, except actions for personal injuries consisting of a disease
or disorder contracted by any person. In these cases, the limitation period is
still six years, but time does not begin to run until the date on which the
plaintiff first knew he or she had suffered the injury and that the injury was
caused by the defendant. A court may extend the limitation period for an
indefinite period, but only in respect of actions which include damages for
personal injuries. The Court may grant such an extension where it is ‘just and
reasonable so to do’. There is no requirement as to ignorance of a material
fact, and an applicant is not required to provided evidence establishing a
prima facie case. There are a number of matter to be considered in deciding
whether to grant an extension of time.
Act 1935 (WA): Actions for tortious claims must be commenced within six
years. The only type of claim for which the limitation period may be extended
is an action in respect of personal injury or death caused by the inhalation of
In the late 1990s at least two
Australian jurisdictions reviewed their limitations statutes:
Law Reform Commission of Western Australia - Report on Limitation and Notice of Actions,
January 1997, and
Queensland Law Reform Commission - Review of the Limitation of Actions Act 1974
(Qld). Report No.53, September 1998.
Limitation periods for civil proceedings and survivors of child sexual
A matter of ongoing concern has been
the application of limitation periods in relation to victims of child sexual
assault. Depending on the circumstances, the sort of civil action instituted by
a survivor of child sexual assault might include an action in battery, assault,
false imprisonment, negligence, breach of duty of care or breach of fiduciary
duty. The type of action instituted by the plaintiff will affect what
limitation period applies. Looking at the situation in each jurisdiction is
further complicated because limitation statutes in each categorise civil
actions and their limitation periods in different ways. For example, in
Queensland, actions for damages in negligence, trespass, nuisance or breach of
duty in respect of personal injury have a limitation of period of three years.
In Western Australia the limitation period is four years for an action in
battery and six years for all other tortious claims.
Provisions in limitations statutes
do enable the limitation period to be extended in some circumstances. For
example the Limitation of Actions Act
1974 (Qld) provides that the limitation period for an action based on a
childhood injury does not start to run until the person has legally become an
adult. It is also possible for a limitation period to be extended if the action
is based on fraud ie where it is argued that the adult abuser fraudulently
concealed the nature of the abuse. The Queensland Law Reform Commission
considered how best to deal with claims relating to child sexual abuse or domestic
violence in the context of limitation statutes and recommended that the issue
should be dealt with as a matter of judicial discretion and not be the subject
of special legislative rules.
to recover lost wages
Existing legal redress
Taking existing avenues of legal redress first, the
situation in Queensland, Western Australia and Victoria has been examined to
indicate what options may be available and the issues that arise. In order to
sue for unpaid wages, a claimant would be required to establish the elements of
that claim, including the existence of a contract of employment. Relevant
limitation statutes would provide a substantial hurdle. In the absence of
particular facts to which the relevant laws can be applied, the following
advice is indicative only.
In each of Queensland, Western
Australia and Victoria, an action in contract must generally be commenced
within six years. There are some, albeit limited, possibilities of extension of
this period. If the cause of action accrued while the claimant was a child,
then in each of those States an action must be commenced within six years of
the claimant ceasing to be under the legal disability of being a minor. None of
the other possibilities of extension appear immediately to be of relevance.
In short, it appears that an action in contract would
generally be statute-barred.
Assuming a child migrant was the
subject of an industrial award in relation to his or her employment, the
following appears to be the case. In Queensland, applications may be made for
payment of unpaid wages within 6 years after the amount claimed became payable.
In Western Australia, the same limitation rules apply as for actions in
contract. In Victoria an action would have to be brought under the Commonwealth Workplace Relations Act 1996,
which requires an employee to sue for recovery of unpaid wages within 6 years.
In short, it appears that an action under industrial
relations laws would be statute-barred.
In general, limitation statutes do not apply to criminal proceedings.
Crimes acts and statutes dealing with summary jurisdiction usually set out the
general time limits which govern those proceedings. The statutory period in
which proceedings must be commenced differs between different offences and
different jurisdictions. In general, a limitation period applies to minor or
summary offences. The limitation period in respect of criminal matters does not
affect the jurisdiction of the court but provides a good defence to the charge:
Parisienne Basket Shoes Pty Ltd v Whyte
(1938) 59 CLR 369 at 376, 389;  ALR 119. Further, the laying of an
information within the limitation period is not an element of the offence: Rabczynski v Morrison  WAR 71.
Criminal proceedings are generally commenced when an information,
complaint or charge is laid before a magistrate or justice. The language of the
statutes cited below varies in relation to how the commencement of proceedings
is described and how the relevant offences are referred to-for example, in some
jurisdictions references are made to summary offences, in other jurisdictions
reference is made to simple offences, or expiable offences. Sometimes
limitation periods apply according to the maximum penalties applicable.
What appears below is a summary of limitation periods that generally
apply in relation to criminal offences. For particular criminal offences, other
statutes may stipulate a particular limitation period that applies to that
particular criminal offence.
In general, section 15B of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cwlth) applies to the
limitation of criminal proceedings.
In the case of a prosecution against an
if the maximum penalty that can be imposed for
an offence committed by an individual includes imprisonment for more than 6
months in the case of a first conviction - there is no limitation period
in any other case - a prosecution must be
commenced within one year of the commission of the offence.
In the case of a
prosecution against a corporation:
if the maximum penalty includes a fine of more
than 150 penalty units (1 penalty unit=$110) - at any time
in any other case - within 1 year of the
commission of the offence.
In the case of a
prosecution against an individual for an offence of aiding and abetting an offence committed by a
if the maximum offence that can be imposed on
the corporation in respect of the primary offence includes a fine of more than
150 penalty units in the case of a first conviction - the prosecution can be
commenced at any time
in any other case - within a year after the
individual has committed the (aiding and abetting) offence.
Section 15B(3) provides that a Commonwealth law can stipulate a longer
time for the commencement of a prosecution for a particular offence.
New South Wales
Under section 56 of the Justices
Act 1902 (NSW) in the case of an offence punishable on summary conviction,
an information or complaint must be made within 6 months, unless some other
time is specified by the particular statute dealing with the offence.
Under section 26(4) of the Magistrates’
Court Act 1989 (Vic) the time limit for commencing proceedings for a
summary offence, unless otherwise provided, is 12 months after the date on
which the offence is alleged to have been committed.
Under section 51 of the Justices
Act 1902 (WA) unless some other time is stipulated, the time limit for
laying a complaint in the case of a simple offence is 12 months after the alleged
offence. See also section 574(1) of the Criminal Code (WA).
Australian Capital Territory
Under section 31 of the Magistrates
Court Act 1930 (ACT) unless otherwise provided:
where the maximum term of imprisonment is more
than 6 months for a first conviction, the prosecution may be commenced at any
time after the offence is committed
where the maximum term of imprisonment does not
exceed 6 months for a first conviction, the prosecution must be commenced
within one year after the commission of the offence
where the punishment is a pecuniary penalty and
no term of imprisonment, the prosecution must be commenced within 1 year after
the commission of the offence.
Under section 52 of the Justices
Act 1928 (NT) if no time is specified in a particular statute creating the
offence the complaint must be laid within 6 months from the date of the alleged
Under section 52 of the Justices
Act 1886 (Qld), a complaint in the case of a simple offence or breach of duty must be made within 1 year from the
time the offence was committed unless some other time is specified.
Under section 52 of the Summary
Procedure Act 1921 (SA), unless otherwise indicated, a prosecution for a
summary offence must be commenced:
in the case of an expiable offence - either within 6 months from the
date the expiation notice was given to the person or, if the expiation notice
was not given to the person, within 6 months from the date of the alleged
in the case of an offence that is not an
expiable offence, proceedings for a summary offence must be commenced within 2
years from the date of the alleged offence.
Under section 26(1) of the Justices
Act 1959 (Tas) a complaint must be made within 6 months of the commission
of the alleged simple offence or
breach of duty, unless otherwise
indicated in the relevant statute. However, notwithstanding this provision:
if the matter could also give rise to an
indictable offence and the person has been charged with the indictable
offence within 6 months from the alleged commission of the offence (or other
period specified in a statute dealing with that particular offence) - a
complaint for a simple offence can be made within 12 months from the date the
offence was alleged to have been committed
if the matter giving rise to the simple offence
could also give rise to an indictable offence and the person has been
charged with the indictable offence within the relevant time and has
consented to the making of the complaint - a complaint for a simple offence may
be made against a person at any time.
and sexual abuse
Generally speaking, if a church has
corporate status - ie legal personality - it can be sued in contract or tort
(ie civil proceedings).
If a church as corporate status and
the relevant criminal procedure statute provides that a corporation may be
found guilty of a criminal offence, then it may be able to be prosecuted.
However, the ability of a corporation to be prosecuted will depend on whether
there is an express or implied contrary intention in the statute. For example, there
is disagreement about whether a corporation can be found guilty of some
offences against the person - including sexual assault.
It is not suggested that it would be
a simple matter for a church that has legal personality to be successfully sued
or prosecuted. In relation to civil proceedings, for example, there may be
problems with evidence, statutes of limitations or even identifying the
appropriate incorporated entity.
The law recognises natural persons,
corporations and others as having legal personality (being legal entities) -
consequentially endowing them with legal rights and responsibilities. Legal
personality involves the ability to own property, enter contracts, sue and be
sued and to be prosecuted for a criminal offence in its own name (although
there are limitations on criminal prosecutions of corporations). Because legal
personality is a creation of the law, its content varies - for example, the
legal personality attributed to a corporation differs from that attributed to a
natural person. Some natural persons eg children and others lacking ‘capacity’
do not have all the attributes of legal personality.
The ability to sue or prosecute a
church depends, in part, on how a church is established. There are various
means of doing this, including:
a church may be established as an unincorporated
association. If this is the case, the church will have no legal personality
that is distinct from that of its members and therefore there will be
difficulties for a person who wishes to sue in contract or tort. A plaintiff in
this situation would have to sue the members of the association.
in all Australian jurisdictions churches can be
incorporated as non-profit voluntary associations. Incorporation can occur
under Associations Incorporations Acts in each State and Territory. Once a
religious association has become incorporated it is a legal entity and can
enter contracts; buy, sell & mortgage property and sue or be sued in tort
in the name of the association.
a religious association may also be incorporated
under corporations law as a company limited by guarantee. The religious
association then becomes a body corporate and can then hold property, sue and
an incorporated or unincorporated trust. These
trusts are established to manage real and personal property and vest the
association’s property in trustees.
a religious trust may be established by statute.
Such a statute may establish a trust corporation which holds property in trust
for the particular church. An example is the Roman Catholic Church Property Trust Act 1911 (WA).
Churches have certainly been sued
civilly in Australia. In Taylor v.
Trustees of the Christian Brothers; Reidy v. Trustees of the Christian Brothers
(1994) Aust Torts Reports 81-288, the plaintiffs were two child migrants
brought from England to Australia who alleged that they had been subjected to
physical and sexual abuse in Christian Brothers institutions and had suffered
physical injury as a result. In this case, the defendants were:
the Trustees of the Christian Brothers, a body
corporate incorporated under the Roman
Catholic Church Community Lands Act 1942 (NSW). The trustees held land and
possibly other property on behalf of the Congregation of Christian Brothers.
The plaintiffs’ statement of claim stated that the Trustees had control of the
relevant institutions at the relevant time.
Gerald Faulkner, the Provincial of the Holy
Spirit Province. The statement of claim identified this person as the successor
in title and law of the Provincial Superiors of the Congregation of Christian
Brothers who managed and controlled the relevant institutions and relevant
Christian Brothers’ activities, and
Barry James Hickey, the Roman Catholic
Archbishop of Perth. The statement of claim alleged that this person was the
successor in title and law of the Archbishop at the relevant time.
The claims appear to have failed for
statute of limitations reasons.
Other cases have included Trustees of Christian Brothers v. Cardone,
unreported, Supreme Court of the ACT, 20 June 1995 in which a former pupil of
St Edmunds College, Canberra sued the Trustees of the Christian Brothers, a
statutory corporation, for damages as a result of an injury he suffered at the
school. In this case, the appeal court (the ACT Supreme Court) increased
Cardone’s general damages to $50,000. The judgment for Mr Cardone amounted to
In February 2001, in Hogan v. The Trustees of the Roman Catholic
Church for the Archdiocese of Sydney & Fricot, a NSW jury awarded
damages of $2.5 million. The plaintiff claimed that his right hand was
permanently injured when he was strapped on 8 occasions on 16 March 1984 at St
John’s College, Lakemba. He sued the Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church and
Denis Fricot, the discipline master. He claimed the punishment had been
excessive and unreasonable and that the defendants had breached their duty of
care to him.
The fact that a church has legal personality may
still involve difficulties for a plaintiff who is seeking to identify the
appropriate manifestation of that legal personality for the purposes of a civil
action. For example, in Archbishop of
Perth v. ‘AA’ to ‘DJ’; ‘DJ’ v. Trustees of Christian Brothers, the NSW Court of Appeal appears
to have found that the claim against the statutory corporation of the Roman
Catholic Archbishop of Perth established by the Roman Catholic Church
Property Act 1911 failed because the Act established the statutory
corporation to hold and dispose of real and personal property and did not
contemplate ‘successory responsibility for tortious conduct of the type
Criminal law has traditionally
emphasised the idea of individual responsibility for criminal behaviour.
Further, imposing the traditional criminal punishment of imprisonment on a
corporation is problematic. The Gibbs Review of Commonwealth Criminal Law
While a corporation is a legal
person, it has no physical existence and can neither act nor form an intention,
except through its directors or servants.
Originally, corporations could only
be held liable where a criminal offence was a strict liability offence-ie
offences where no mental element was required. Since the early 20th
century, however, Australian courts and legislatures have expanded the scope of
corporate criminal liability.
It is now the case in a number of
Australian jurisdictions that,
unless the definition of an offence or its subject matter indicates otherwise,
a corporation can be criminally liable as a primary offender for any offence.
For example, at Commonwealth level, section 4B of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cwlth) provides that, unless the contrary
intention appears, a corporation can be found guilty of any offence including
an offence which is punishable by imprisonment. Section 12.1(2) of the Commonwealth
Criminal Code is worded similarly. However, most traditional crimes against the
person will be found in State and Territory criminal law. In New South Wales,
for example, the relevant provision is section 59(1) of the Criminal Procedure Act 1986 which reads:
Unless a contrary intention appears,
a provision of an Act relating to an offence applies to bodies corporate as
well as individuals.
It is immaterial how a corporation has achieved its corporate status.
In the Victorian context Fox remarks:
It matters not how the entity acquired its corporate status.
Included are companies created under the Corporations
Law, associations incorporated under the Associations Incorporation Act 1981, cooperative bodies or
societies established under the Cooperation
Act 1981; corporate entities such as universities created by charter or
incorporated legislatively; or organisations such as trade union or employers’
associations given corporate status under the Industrial Relations Act 1988 (Cth)...Even crown corporations may be
subject to prosecution.
‘Liability is attributed to
[corporations] through the conduct of employees or agents acting within the
scope of their employment and the mental states of high managerial officers of
Corporate criminal liability for specific
offences against the person such as sexual assault
Whether a corporation can be
criminally liable for a criminal offence may be expressly stated or implied
from the nature of that offence. While corporations may be liable for homicide, it has been suggested that there
are some offences against the person that cannot be committed by a corporation.
An example that is sometimes given are sexual offences. While some commentators
have taken issue with this view, they do suggest that the circumstances in
which a corporation might be found guilty of sexual offences would be
limited-this is because the relevant act must be within the scope of an
employee or agent’s employment before it can be attributed to the corporation.
The following extract from Howard’s
Criminal Law might be useful
It may be thought that the natural limitations on the power to
punish a corporation imply that there are some crimes, notably offences against
the person, that a corporation cannot commit. There seems to be no warrant for
this. No theoretical reason suggests itself why, if it can be within the scope
of a managing director’s employment to commit fraud in what he supposes are the
company’s interests, it should not equally well be within the scope of his
employment to commit murder, or indeed any other offence, with the same
object...A contrary intention [to making a corporation liable] may be express, as
where an offence is defined in terms that require the principal offender to
have some personal status that only an individual can possess; examples include
bigamy and company code offences relating to corporate officers. A contrary
intention may also be implied, a possibility sometimes governed more by
individualistic presuppositions than by an assessment of corporate criminal
capacity. Perjury and sexual offences, so it has been suggested, inherently
require conduct of which only a human is capable. It is open to question,
however, whether such an implication should be drawn. If a corporation is
liable for unlawful homicide on the basis of a lethal act performed by a
manager or employee then it is difficult to see why a corporation should not
also be liable for perjury or rape on the basis of an act of perjury or rape
committed by a manager or employee. The relevant act must be within the scope
of employment before it can be attributed to a corporation, but that is a
This author notes that: ‘Although
sexual offences would hardly ever be within the scope of employment, the
possibility is not inconceivable, as where Vile Video Ltd engages in the
business of performing actual rather than simulated sexual offences in order to
enhance the realism of its films...’
Arguably, a different conclusion
might be reached about other assaults-for example, physical assault.