The doctrine of laches is a crucial legal principle known for its emphasis on “unreasonable delay.” This doctrine is an integral part of the broader concept of equity, which aims to uphold fairness and justice in legal proceedings.
The doctrine of laches serves as a tool used by Australian courts to determine whether a plaintiff’s delay in bringing a legal claim has been unreasonable and, if so, whether that delay should bar the plaintiff from obtaining the remedy or relief sought.
The doctrine of laches comes into play when a plaintiff has waited an unreasonable amount of time before pursuing their claim. The key element here is that the delay must have caused prejudice to the defendant in some way. For instance, it may have made it challenging for the defendant to gather evidence, locate witnesses, or defend themselves effectively.
When a defendant raises the defence of laches, they essentially argue that the plaintiff’s delay has unfairly prejudiced them, making it unjust for the court to grant the requested remedy. In such cases, the court closely examines the circumstances and considers various factors, including the length of the delay, the reasons behind the delay, the extent of prejudice suffered by the defendant, and the overall equities involved.
In this article, our litigation team explain equitable claims, and the doctrine of laches in more detail.
What is an Equitable Claim?
An important question that you will need to understand when discussing the doctrine of laches is what is an equitable claim and how does it relate to this doctrine?
Equity separates what is morally right and wrong (in the eyes of Australian law) from what is legally right and wrong.
Say, for example, you perform large amounts of building work under the premise that you will be paid, but without a contract. If they refuse to pay and the law cannot prove that they ever agreed to make payments for the work in question, equity can be applied, and you can be paid for your work.
Although it cannot be proven that their not paying you for the work is legally wrong, it can be decided by the court that it is ethically wrong. Equity is used when the law is too rigid for an outcome that is fair to be effectively applied.
When you make an equitable claim, you claim to the court under the principle of equity!
The Doctrine of Laches – What is Delay?
When discussing the doctrine of laches, delay is a key feature in determining if it can be applied. As we have discussed, equity is different from the law in its flexibility and, like law, has the key goal of analysing and applying a fair outcome to the matter.
This being said, not everyone will be successful when making an equitable claim, as not all circumstances suit and sometimes a fair outcome will not be the claim that is being made.
Therefore, there must be defences in place to protect those that have had equitable claims filed against them in a circumstance where it may not be fair. This is where the doctrine of laches can be applied.
In civil law, you will have a set period of time to make a claim for it to be seen as reasonable and permitted. This will vary depending on the claim and the circumstances surrounding the claim. This is mirrored in equity and equitable claims.
You must claim within a set period in order for it to be reasonable when discussing equity also! However, as equity does not rely on legislation like laws do, so the doctrine of laches is used to apply this requirement.
If someone employs the defence of laches, they are stating that the other party has taken an unreasonable amount of time to make a claim and that this is not fair, as circumstances have changed since.
Of course, the plaintiff has time to consider their options and discuss with a lawyer, so the claim does not have to be made immediately after the violation of rights has taken place. Furthermore, any reasonable causes for delay will be considered by the court, such as illness or personal tragedy.
What is Prejudice in the Doctrine of Laches?
In the previous point, we discussed the fact that a plaintiff cannot make an equitable claim after an unreasonably long period under the doctrine of laches. But why is this the case? What purpose does this serve to ensure a fair and equitable outcome is reached?
Well, having a period where it is reasonable to make a claim prevents the defendant or the person the claim has been made against, from prejudice. Prejudice is the term used when discussing laches for harm or disadvantage that the defendant has suffered as a result of the delay in the plaintiff applying their rights.
This is a key factor in deciding if the defence of laches can be applied or not, as there is not a strict value on the period that a claim must be made for. When the delay is particularly extended, it becomes much easier for prejudice to be inferred.
The Doctrine of Laches – Determining Relief
When discussing whether or not relief will be provided for equitable claims, the doctrine of laches and delay in the context of laches will be considered heavily.
Just for some understanding, relief is what a party is seeking when they are making an equitable claim. In order for relief to be provided, the party should make their claim in a period that is suitable to the matter and the circumstances.
However, more evidence that simply a delay is needed to prevent the other party from claiming relief for the injustice in question. It must be found that the consequences of the delay make it that it is now unfair to provide relief.
The nature of the delay, as well as the damage done to the defendant as a result of the delay, will be considered when determining if relief should be granted.
Change in Circumstances and the Doctrine of Laches
After significant time lapses after the violation of the rights in question in the equitable claim, chances are that the circumstances surrounding the matter have changed.
When applying the doctrine of laches, one of the key themes that must be applied is prejudice as a result of a change in circumstances. This means that the circumstances surrounding the matter have changed to an extent that it would no longer be fair to the defending party to apply for relief.
Therefore, changing circumstances is key to determining if the defence of laches is valid, as if it cannot be suggested that the delay has resulted in changing circumstances that would create an unfair outcome if the claim was granted, it will not be allowed.
Exceptions to the Availability of Equitable Defences
The defences that we have discussed in the article are referred to as equitable defences and, like equitable claims, they ensure a fair outcome in matters of equity. However, there are some exceptions to equitable defences, meaning that some circumstances warrant the defence to be not permitted even if it can be suggested to be true.
An example of this is when the plaintiff has been influenced by fraudulent behaviour or misrepresentation in order for the proceedings to be delayed. If this can be proven, the defence of laches cannot be applied, as illegal or unfair behaviour was put in place to cause the delay.
Furthermore, if the plaintiff has been prevented through any other means of the defendant’s behaviour, the defendant cannot make a defence based on laches.
It also cannot apply in circumstances where there is a statutory right for the plaintiff to bring forward their complaint and initiate proceedings.
Case Study – Macquarie Units Pty Ltd v Sunchen Pty Ltd  NSWCA 116
In the case of Macquarie Units Pty Ltd v Sunchen Pty Ltd, the defence of laches can be seen in action and as a valid defence in court.
In this matter, the respondents, Sunchen Pty Ltd, brought forward the defence of laches against an equitable claim made by the plaintiff, Macquarie Units Pty Ltd. They believed that the period of time that it took for the plaintiffs to make their claim was unreasonable, resulting in a change in circumstance that would cause prejudice if the claim to relief was granted.
The Court (Meagher JA, White and Brereton JJA agreeing) recognises that the defence of laches was valid and that there had been an unreasonable period between the violation of rights and the claim being made. It was, therefore, decided that the claim was invalid and would result in prejudice, leading to a dismissal of the case.
This case is an example of the doctrine of laches being used to protect someone’s rights and ensure a fair outcome is allowed.
The Doctrine of Laches FAQ
In this frequently asked questions section, we aim to provide you with clear and concise answers to all your questions related to laches.
What is the doctrine of laches in Australia?
In Australia, the Doctrine of Laches is an equitable principle that deals with the unreasonable delay in bringing a legal claim. It is based on the idea that if a plaintiff unjustifiably waits too long before initiating legal action, and this delay causes prejudice to the defendant, the plaintiff may be barred from pursuing their claim.
What is the difference between laches and equitable estoppel?
Laches is a defence used to bar a legal claim due to an unreasonable delay in bringing the claim. Equitable estoppel, on the other hand, is a legal doctrine that prevents a person from asserting their legal rights or claiming a right they previously waived or denied, if another person has relied on that waiver or denial to their detriment.
What is the Doctrine of Laches in the context of Australian law?
The Doctrine of Laches is an equitable defence in Australian law that deals with the unreasonable delay in bringing a legal claim. It asserts that if a plaintiff unreasonably delays initiating legal action, and this delay causes prejudice to the defendant, the plaintiff may be barred from pursuing their claim.
How does the Doctrine of Laches affect my legal claim in Australia?
If you, as a plaintiff, delay in filing your legal claim and the delay prejudices the defendant, the court may apply the Doctrine of Laches. As a consequence, the court could refuse to hear your case, as it would be considered unfair to the defendant to address a claim after an unreasonable lapse of time.
What factors do Australian courts consider when applying the Doctrine of Laches?
Australian courts consider several factors when applying the Doctrine of Laches. These may include the length of the delay, the reason for the delay, whether the defendant suffered any prejudice due to the delay, and whether the plaintiff had a valid excuse for not bringing the claim sooner.
Is there a specific time limit that defines “unreasonable delay” under the Doctrine of Laches in Australia?
No, there is no fixed time limit that constitutes “unreasonable delay.” The determination of reasonableness depends on the circumstances of each case. Courts will assess the specific facts, nature of the claim, and any explanations provided by the plaintiff to decide whether the delay was unjustified.
Can the Doctrine of Laches be used as a defence in any legal claim in Australia?
The Doctrine of Laches is typically used in cases where equitable remedies are sought, rather than those seeking purely monetary damages. It is commonly applied in matters involving trusts, property, or injunctions. However, its applicability may vary based on the specific circumstances of each case, and consulting with a legal professional is essential to understand its potential impact on your claim.