What Is The Legal Definition Of “Laches?”

Some legal terms are far more obscure than others. Here’s one you’ve probably never run into (unless you’ve passed the bar exam): laches. This term relates to a person’s rights in relation to certain legal powers in or out of court. Read on to find out more.

According to dictionary.law.com, the legal definition of laches: “The legal doctrine that a legal right or claim will not be enforced or allowed if a long delay in asserting the right or claim has prejudiced the adverse party (hurt the opponent) as a sort of ‘legal ambush.’”

What does this mean in layman’s terms?

Most comparisons of “laches” are made to state-specific statute of limitations. For example, the statute of limitations describes the maximum amount of time a victim has to come forward to alert the authorities that a crime has been committed. For example, some states have extremely limiting statute of limitations for crimes involving sexual assault — even though most victims are young and too affected by psychological and emotional trauma to come forward in the given period of time.

Laches works in reverse in most cases. 

Let’s say a victim of sexual assault waits five years to alert authorties of the crime. The state’s statute of limitations is ten years, and so the judge allows the case to move forward. But then the defendant’s lawyer uses a “laches defense.” In this particular case, the defense attorney might say that the client’s rights are violated because it’s difficult or impossible to approach witnesses or find evidence of an alleged crime that occurred years ago. The judge would then decide whether or not this defense is appropriate — and also whether or not the case should be dismissed outright if the defense is deemed valid.

You can see why this type of defense is particularly emotionally evocative now, when the #MeToo movement has gained so much momentum. Laches and statutes of limitations are under fire because victims have the right to be heard.