To what extent can someone be accused of historic crimes? Is there a time limit? And could a delay in prosecution amount to abuse of process?

These questions are all pertinent to prosecutions relating to historic crimes (which are commonly of a sexual nature). Our criminal defence solicitors explain the answers.

No statute of limitation

Firstly, there is no statute of limitation when it comes to criminal prosecutions. This means that, in theory, someone can be convicted of a crime they committed many decades earlier.

No statement of principle

Furthermore, there is no statement of principle that says a trial after a particular number of years is unfair. This means that a trial is not automatically unfair simply because a long time has passed since the offence was committed.

Delay and abuse of process

However, there is some ambiguity around the issue of delay, by which we mean the delay between the crimes being committed and the trial. The question is whether or not the delay would prevent a fair trial from taking place.

This is something the prosecution must consider before bringing formal proceedings against the defendant. This is called ‘abuse of process’.

The Court of Appeal has considered various appeals on the grounds of abuse of process. Some have gone the way of the defendant, whereas others have not. It all depends on the circumstances.

Conviction overturned

For example, in the case of Joynson [2008], the Court of Appeal overturned a conviction for an alleged offence committed 35 years before the trial. The ruling stated:

“This court is always slow to allow an appeal against a conviction where the case has been handled with care by an experienced judge and the jury has reached its conclusions of fact after hearing all the witnesses. Nevertheless, we must stand back from the case and ask ourselves whether we regard the convictions as safe.

The case as presented to us may be a little different from the way it was presented to the judge when he read the skeleton arguments which were before him, but we are troubled by the very great delay and its particular consequences in the context of the specific allegations in this case. We have reached the conclusion that we cannot regard these convictions as safe.”

Conviction upheld

However, in the case of R v RD [2013], the Court of Appeal upheld convictions, even though the delay between the crimes and the trial was 63 years. The court held:

“The delay in this case is exceptionally long, between 39 and 63 years. The length of the period of itself proves nothing beyond that historical fact. What is of crucial importance is the effect of such delay on the fairness of the trial and the safety of any resultant convictions. In this case the appellant’s submissions have not proceeded by reference to generalities based on the substantial lapse of time…

… we are satisfied that this appellant received a fair trial, and was not disadvantaged in a way that could properly be described as amounting to serious prejudice to his ability to mount a proper defence to the allegations brought against him. Accordingly, our conclusion is that the convictions are safe and that the appeal against conviction must be dismissed.”

Therefore, there is no straightforward answer on the issue of delay.

Contact us now

If you have been accused of a historic crime – such as a historic sexual offence – this matter could be crucial to your case. Our experienced criminal defence solicitors know how to advance such arguments to the court to secure you the best possible outcome.

Call us on 0333 009 6275. We are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

You can also email us on or complete our Free Online Enquiry Form and we will contact you.