One of the most urgently needed reforms of the Italian criminal justice system is to the Statute of Limitations or the rules on “prescrizione” which determine the date by which a criminal offence can no longer continue to be prosecuted if no verdict has been reached.
Legge n. 3 del 9 gennaio 2019 was introduced by the Justice Minister Bonafede of the Five Star Movement and came into force in January 2020. Its main provision would suspend the limitation period once a verdict in the first instance court had been reached. In other words, a case could not be tactically dragged out by appealing until time had run out. 25% of criminal proceedings were actually declared time-barred in 2018 while in the appeals phase.
The new law also aims to put strict time limits on the preliminary investigation phase before charges are brought at all. Currently 60% of criminal offences do not pass the preliminary phase before the prosecutor runs out of time because of long delays and inefficiency.
The reform has had a mixed reception from judges and lawyers although it was welcomed by the President of the Supreme Court (Court of Cassazione) and has been applauded by the EU which says reform is long overdue to the Italian justice system. Yet the new law has caused a serious rift in the current Italian government. Critics say that part of the reform which provides for penalty of disciplinary action against judges who do not respect “the reasonable length of the process,” is too vague. They say that the suspension of prescrizione in criminal trials might mean they are never-ending.
Statute of limitations in civil law
In Italian civil law the limitation period sets out the length of time by which a claim can be brought in the ordinary courts. A claimant can start action for breach of contract within 10 years of the moment when he became aware of the breach and at the end of that period the right to claim will be “prescritto” (Art. 2946 Civil Code). But the clock running out can be avoided by a notice of claim being made, which will make a fresh time bar period start to run. Shorter time bars apply to some particular contracts (insurance or employment contracts for example).
On the other hand an action for damages ensuing from a fraudulent or negligent act (Art. 2947 Civil Code) must be brought within 5 years of the act, or a claim for damages following a road traffic accident can be brought up to 2 years from the date of the accident, although in both these cases if the action gives rise to a criminal offence and there is a longer limitation period that longer period will apply.