Within the common law legal system, a mechanism exists wherein a time period is placed upon which an individual or any other party may accuse another of a crime after the said crime has occurred. This mechanism is the statute of limitations, which is an essential component of common law in that it provides a time limit to the opportunity of beginning legal proceedings against another.
For example, a person or entity can charge another with misdemeanor up to 2 years after the offense has been committed. If after 2 years no charges have been filed, the person or entity can no longer file charges against another for the offense committed more than 2 years ago. Thus, the statute of limitations literally puts a limit as to when a person can still bring charges against another.
The statute of limitations was enacted in order to address the difficulty that the accused may have in proving his or her innocence. It is possible for the accused to encounter an overwhelming amount of evidence or testimonies after a period of time. However, there can be some exceptions to the statute of limitations. Such a statute may be tolled if certain conditions are circumstances are met. Tolling a statute of limitations means that the time period does not come into effect if a certain condition or circumstance is acknowledged by the court to be exceptional. This can be done if the plaintiff is a minor or if the plaintiff is undergoing bankruptcy proceedings. Unless such exceptions are met, criminal or civil claims must be filed within the legally determined time period.