Prescription, also referred to as the Statute of Limitations in other legal systems, originates from Roman law and signifies a specific timeframe within which a court case must be initiated against a defendant. This concept is fundamental and applies to both criminal and civil cases.

The institute of prescription ensures that legal actions are pursued in a timely manner, balancing the interests of justice with the need for finality and legal certainty. Under Maltese law, the period of prescription for criminal cases varies depending on the nature and severity of the offence. Generally, less serious offenses may have shorter prescriptive periods, while more serious crimes may have longer ones.

From a criminal law standpoint, the notion of prescription holds significant importance. Through prescription, the legislature aims to protect the accused from facing charges long after the occurrence of the crime. Its purpose is to prevent the executive police from accusing suspects when evidence is lost, witnesses’ memories fade, or facts become obscure due to the passage of time. Beyond the legal dimension of prescription, logistically speaking, there is a contention that it is not operationally efficient for courts to adjudicate cases where facts are no longer discernible, evidence cannot be traced, witnesses are inaccessible, and human memory is susceptible to error. Ultimately, cases brought forward after a considerable period are generally deemed too weak to argue and substantiate.

Article 691 of Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta for instance provides that with regard to a completed offence, the period of prescription will start to run from the day on which the offence was completed. Moreover, prescription in instances concerning an attempted offence will start to run from the day on which the last act of execution was committed. In the case of continuous offences, prescription starts to run from the day on which the last violation took place and for continuing offences, prescription runs from the day on which the continuance ceased.

There are different periods of prescription provided for under article 688 of Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta, which are in proportion to the severity of the crime. The shortest period is that of 3 months in respect of contraventions with the longest period being that of 20 years for crimes liable to a term of not less than 20 years imprisonment. There are also prescriptive periods consisting of 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, and 15 years depending on their respective criminal action in question. These may be found throughout Article 688(a) to Article 688(f) of the aforementioned chapter.

Prescription, as outlined in Article 694 of Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta, is applied ex officio, and it is not lawful for the accused party to waive prescription. However, there is an exception to this rule in cases where the perpetrator is unidentified. In such instances, prescription does not begin to run. Prescription will start to run once the perpetrator is identified.

In the case of Il-Pulizija vs Raymond Camillerithe injured party suffered grevious bodily harm after the accused, Raymond Camilleri hit him with his car as a result of negligent and careless driving. The prescriptive period for this kind of offence is time-barred at 2 years. The offence took place on the 23rd April 2020. Following the conclusion of the investigations, the accused was charged and arraigned in court on the 13th Day of July 2022, exceeding the 2-year prescriptive period.

The plea of prescription was raised under Article 688(e) of Chapter 9 of the Laws of Malta by the defence and the case was eventually dropped.

If a criminal case is initiated after the expiration of the statutory prescriptive period, the defence or the court itself may raise the plea of prescription. This would result in the termination of the criminal proceedings. This scenario was central to the case of ‘The Police v Tanya Carmen Chetcuti’ (2014)

For more information or assistance please contact Dr Robert Tufigno and Dr Delilah Vella.  

Disclaimer This article is not intended to impart legal advice and readers are asked to seek verification of statements made before acting on them.
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