The equitable defence of laches and acquiescence serve to protect parties from claims were either by the lengthy delay in proceeding with the claim, a plaintiff’s conduct, a defendant’s reliance, or a combination of any one or more, cause it to be inequitable to permit the plaintiff to pursue his or her claim.
The doctrine of laches and acquiescence is entirely a creature of equity. The doctrine is somewhat akin to limitation periods enacted by statute and can be relied on were equitable relief is sought but no statutory limitation period applies.
Courts of equity have always refused their aid for stale demands, where a party has slipped on his or her right and acquiesced for a great length of time. Nothing but conscience, good faith and reasonable diligence can cause a court exercises jurisdiction; where these are lacking, a court will do nothing. Delay that is sufficient to prevent a party from obtaining an equitable remedy is called ”laches”.
Laches and acquiescence in court
The classic reference was stated in the English decision Lindsay Petroleum Company v Hurd (1874) LR 5 PC 221:
“The doctrine of laches in courts of equity is not an arbitrary or a technical doctrine. Where it would be practically unjust to give a remedy, either because the party has, by his conduct done that which might fairly be regarded as equivalent to a waiver of it, or where by his conduct and neglect he has, though perhaps not waiving that remedy, yet put the other party in a situation in which it would be unreasonable to play cement if the remedy were afterwards to be asserted, in either of these cases lapse of time and delay are most material. But in every case of an argument against relief, which otherwise would be just, is founded upon mere delay, that the live course not amounting to a bar by any statute of limitations, the the validity of that defense must be tried upon principle substantially equitable. To circumstances always important in such cases are, the length of the delay in the nature of the acts done during the interval, which might affect either party and cause a balance of justice or injustice in taking the one course or the other, so far as relates to the remedy”
The Supreme Court of Canada considered the doctrine of laches and acquiescence in Manitoba Metis Federation Inc. v Canada (Atty. Gen.) 2013 SCC 14:
“The equitable doctrine of laches requires a claimant in equity to prosecute his or her claim without undue delay. It does not fix the specific limit, but considers the circumstances of each case.
In determining whether there has been delay amounting to laches, the main considerations are :
- Acquiescence on the claimant’s part;
- Any change of position that is occurred on the defendant’s part that arose from reasonable reliance on the claimant’s acceptance of the status quo
- The court concluded that the doctrine considers whether the delay of the plaintiff constitutes acquiescence or results in circumstances that make the prosecution of the action unreasonable.
Ultimately laches must be resolved as a matter of justice as between the parties, as is the case with any equitable doctrine.
The claimant must be shown to:
- Have knowledge of the underlying facts giving rise to a claim
- Have knowledge of the facts constitute a legal claim
- The test is whether it is reasonable for a plaintiff to be ignorant of his or her legal rights given his or her knowledge of the underlying facts relevant to a possible legal claim;
- The claimant’s actions are in action must be taken to be unreasonable in the circumstances.
The defendant must be shown to have altered his or her position in reasonable reliance on the claimant’s acceptance of the status quo, or otherwise permitted a situation to arise which it would be unjust to disturb.