A defense to an equitable action, that bars recovery by the plaintiff because of the plaintiff's undue delay in seeking relief.
Laches is a defense to a proceeding in which a plaintiff seeks equitable relief. Cases in EQUITY are distinguished from cases at law by the type of remedy, or judicial relief, sought by the plaintiff. Generally, law cases involve a problem that can be solved by the payment of monetary damages. Equity cases involve remedies directed by the court against a party.
Types of equitable relief include INJUNCTION, where the court orders a party to do or not to do something; declaratory relief, where the court declares the rights of the two parties to a controversy; and accounting, where the court orders a detailed written statement of money owed, paid, and held. Courts have complete discretion in equity, and weigh equitable principles against the facts of the case to determine whether relief is warranted.
The rules of equity are built on a series of legal maxims, which serve as broad statements of principle, the truth and reasonableness of which are self-evident. The basis of equity is contained in the MAXIM "Equity will not suffer an injustice." Other maxims present reasons for not granting equitable relief. Laches is one such defense.
Laches is based on the legal maxim "Equity aids the vigilant, not those who slumber on their rights." Laches recognizes that a party to an action can lose evidence, witnesses, and a fair chance to defend himself or herself after the passage of time from the date the wrong was committed. If the defendant can show disadvantages because for a long time he or she relied on the fact that no lawsuit would be started, then the case should be dismissed in the interests of justice.
The law encourages a speedy resolution for every dispute. Cases in law are governed by STATUTES OF LIMITATIONS, which are laws that determine how long a person has to file a lawsuit before the right to sue expires. Different types of injuries (e.g., TORT and contract) have different time periods in which to file a lawsuit. Laches is the equitable equivalent of statutes of limitations. However, unlike statutes of limitations, laches leaves it up to the court to determine, based on the unique facts of the case, whether a plaintiff has waited too long to seek relief.
Real estate boundary disputes are resolved in equity and may involve laches. For instance, if a person starts to build a garage that extends beyond the boundary line and into a neighbor's property, and the neighbor immediately files a suit in equity and asks the court to issue an injunction to stop the construction, the neighbor will likely prevail. On the other hand, if the neighbor observes the construction of the garage on her property and does not file suit until the garage is completed, the defendant may plead laches, arguing that the neighbor had ample time to protect her property rights before the construction was completed, and the court may find it unfair to order that the garage be torn down.
The laches defense, like most of equity law, is a general concept containing many variations on the maxim. Phrases used to describe laches include "delay that works to the disadvantage of another," "inexcusable delay coupled with prejudice to the party raising the defense," "failure to assert rights," "lack of diligence," and "neglect or omission to assert a right."