Special Plea In Bar

Special Plea In Bar
Special Plea In Bar
Quick Summary of Special Plea In Bar

A special plea in bar is a legal defence that aims to permanently defeat the plaintiff’s or prosecutor’s action, unlike a general plea in bar, which is a criminal defendant’s plea of not guilty. Instead of denying the facts alleged, a special plea in bar sets up an extrinsic fact that shows why a defendant cannot be tried for the offence charged. Examples of special pleas in bar include the plea of Autrefois Acquit, which asserts that the defendant has already been acquitted of the same offence in a previous trial, and the plea of Pardon, which asserts that the defendant has been granted a pardon for the offence charged. These examples demonstrate how a special plea in bar can prevent a defendant from being tried for a crime. If the court accepts the plea, the case will be dismissed, and the defendant will be free from further prosecution for that offence.

What is the dictionary definition of Special Plea In Bar?
Dictionary Definition of Special Plea In Bar

A special plea in bar is a legal argument that a defendant can employ to effectively and permanently invalidate a plaintiff’s or prosecutor’s case. Unlike a general plea in bar that merely denies the charges, a special plea in bar asserts that there exists another justification for why the defendant cannot be prosecuted for the crime. For instance, the defendant may contend that they have previously been acquitted of the same offence or have received a pardon.

Full Definition Of Special Plea In Bar

A special plea in bar is a vital element of common law, particularly within the British legal system. It serves as a defensive mechanism used by defendants in civil and criminal cases to prevent the plaintiff or prosecution from proceeding with their action. The essence of a special plea in bar is to raise a legal issue that, if proven, would act as a complete barrier to the plaintiff’s claim or prosecution. This overview delves into the historical background, types, procedural aspects, and significance of special pleas in bar within the British legal context.

Historical Background

The concept of special pleas in bar can be traced back to medieval England, where the common law system evolved through judicial decisions and practices. Initially, pleas were simple and unsophisticated, but over time, they developed into a more complex system allowing defendants to raise specific defences. These pleas aimed to prevent cases from proceeding to trial when there were compelling legal reasons to halt them at an early stage.

Types of Special Pleas in Bar

Special pleas in bar are categorised based on their nature and the specific defences they offer. The main types include:

  • Autrefois Acquit and Autrefois Convict: These pleas are used in criminal cases. ‘Autrefois acquit’ (formerly acquitted) and ‘autrefois convict’ (formerly convicted) are pleas based on the principle of double jeopardy, which prevents a person from being tried twice for the same offence. If a defendant can prove that they have already been acquitted or convicted of the same charge, the plea will bar the prosecution from proceeding.
  • Res Judicata: This plea, also known as “issue estoppel” in civil cases, asserts that the matter has already been judged by a competent court and cannot be re-litigated. It prevents parties from re-opening cases that have been conclusively settled.
  • Plea of Limitation: This plea asserts that the claim is barred by the statute of limitations. Every jurisdiction has prescribed time limits within which legal actions must be initiated. If the time limit has expired, the defendant can use this plea to bar the claim.
  • Plea of Sovereign Immunity: In certain cases, defendants can plead sovereign immunity, which asserts that the sovereign or state cannot be sued without its consent. This principle originates from the doctrine that the king can do no wrong.
  • Estoppel: Estoppel prevents a party from asserting something contrary to what is implied by a previous action or statement by that party or by a previous pertinent judicial determination. There are various forms of estoppel, including promissory estoppel and estoppel by representation.

Procedural Aspects

The procedure for raising a special plea in bar varies between civil and criminal cases but generally follows a similar framework:

  • Filing the Plea: The defendant must file the special plea in bar at an early stage of the proceedings, typically after the summons or indictment has been served but before the main trial begins. This filing must be accompanied by a clear statement of the facts and legal grounds on which the plea is based.
  • Supporting Evidence: The plea must be supported by evidence or affidavits that substantiate the defendant’s claims. For instance, in the case of a plea of autrefois acquit, court records of the previous acquittal must be presented.
  • Hearing and Determination: The court will schedule a hearing to consider the special plea in bar. Both parties will have the opportunity to present their arguments and evidence. The burden of proof typically lies with the defendant to establish the validity of the plea.
  • Judicial Decision: After considering the submissions and evidence, the court will make a determination. If the plea is upheld, the case will be dismissed or permanently barred from proceeding. If the plea is rejected, the case will proceed to trial on its merits.

Significance and Impact

Special pleas in bar play a crucial role in the administration of justice by ensuring that defendants are not subjected to unjust or repetitive litigation. They uphold principles of fairness and legal certainty by providing defendants with a mechanism to challenge the validity of claims at an early stage. This, in turn, helps to conserve judicial resources and reduce the burden on the courts.

Preventing Double Jeopardy

In criminal law, the pleas of autrefois acquit and autrefois convict protect individuals from being tried multiple times for the same offence, thus upholding the principle of double jeopardy. This is fundamental to ensuring fairness and preventing abuse of the legal process.

Upholding Legal Certainty

The doctrine of res judicata in civil cases ensures that once a dispute has been resolved, it cannot be re-litigated. This promotes finality and stability in legal relationships, providing certainty to parties involved in legal disputes.

Statutory Limitations

The plea of limitation serves an essential purpose by ensuring that claims are brought within a reasonable time frame. This protects defendants from facing legal actions after evidence may have deteriorated or become unavailable, ensuring that justice is administered based on fresh and reliable evidence.

Sovereign Immunity

Sovereign immunity reflects the principle that the state cannot be sued without its consent. This maintains the balance between the powers of the state and the rights of individuals, ensuring that government functions are not unduly hampered by litigation.

Case Law Examples

Criminal Cases

R v. Humphrys [1977] AC 1: This case is a landmark in the context of autrefois acquit. The defendant was acquitted of a crime but later faced a different charge for the same act. The House of Lords upheld the plea of autrefois acquit, reinforcing the principle that a person cannot be tried again for an offence for which they have been acquitted.

Civil Cases

Henderson v. Henderson (1843) 3 Hare 100: This case established the principle of res judicata in English law. The court held that parties must bring forward their whole case in one go and cannot re-litigate matters that have already been adjudicated.

Plea of Limitation

Lindsay Petroleum Co. v. Hurd (1874) LR 5 PC 221: This case illustrated the application of the plea of limitation. The Privy Council held that a claim brought after the statutory period was barred, emphasizing the importance of bringing claims within the prescribed time limits.

Challenges and Criticisms

While special pleas in bar are crucial for the legal system, they are not without challenges and criticisms. Some of the notable issues include:

Complexity and Technicality

The procedural requirements for special pleas in bar can be complex and highly technical. Defendants must adhere to strict guidelines and timelines, which can be challenging without proper legal representation. This complexity can sometimes lead to the dismissal of valid pleas due to procedural errors.

Potential for Abuse

There is a potential for abuse of special pleas in bar by defendants seeking to delay proceedings or avoid liability. Courts must be vigilant in scrutinizing such pleas to ensure they are not used as mere tactical manoeuvres.

Balancing Fairness

Balancing the fairness between plaintiffs and defendants is a constant challenge. While special pleas in bar protect defendants from unjust litigation, they must not unduly prejudice the rights of plaintiffs to have their claims heard. Courts must carefully weigh the merits of each plea to ensure justice is served.


Special pleas in bar are a cornerstone of the British legal system, providing a crucial defence mechanism for defendants in both civil and criminal cases. They uphold principles of fairness, legal certainty, and judicial efficiency by allowing defendants to challenge the validity of claims at an early stage. While they present certain challenges and complexities, their significance in preventing unjust or repetitive litigation cannot be overstated.

As legal systems continue to evolve, the principles underpinning special pleas in bar will remain integral to ensuring a balanced and just administration of law. Courts must continue to navigate the delicate balance between protecting defendants’ rights and ensuring that plaintiffs have a fair opportunity to present their cases. Through careful adjudication and adherence to legal principles, special pleas in bar will continue to serve as a vital tool in the pursuit of justice.

Special Plea In Bar FAQ'S

A special plea in bar is a legal defence raised by the defendant in a civil case, asserting that the plaintiff’s claim is barred due to a specific legal reason, such as the expiration of the statute of limitations or the existence of a prior judgement on the same matter.

A special plea in bar can be raised at any stage of the civil litigation process, typically in response to the plaintiff’s complaint or during pre-trial motions.

Common grounds for raising a special plea in bar include expiration of the statute of limitations, lack of subject matter jurisdiction, lack of personal jurisdiction, res judicata (claim preclusion), collateral estoppel (issue preclusion), and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

Unlike other defences, such as denial of the plaintiff’s allegations or affirmative defences, a special plea in bar challenges the very basis of the plaintiff’s claim, asserting that it is legally invalid or barred.

If a special plea in bar is successful, the court may dismiss the plaintiff’s claim entirely, preventing them from proceeding with the case. However, the court may also allow the plaintiff an opportunity to amend their complaint or provide additional evidence to overcome the bar.

No, a special plea in bar is specific to civil cases and cannot be raised in criminal proceedings. Criminal cases have their own set of defences and procedures.

Yes, a special plea in bar can be raised in any type of civil case, including contract disputes, personal injury claims, property disputes, and more.

While it is not legally required to have an attorney, it is highly recommended to seek legal representation when raising a special plea in bar. An experienced attorney can navigate the complex legal arguments and ensure that all necessary procedures are followed.

In general, a special plea in bar should be raised before or at the beginning of the trial. However, there may be exceptional circumstances where the court allows a late-raised special plea in bar if it is in the interest of justice.

Yes, if a special plea in bar is denied by the trial court, the defendant may have the right to appeal the decision to a higher court. However, the availability and procedures for appeal may vary depending on the jurisdiction and specific circumstances of the case.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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