Describing Time Periods


In this article, "time periods" refers to words used in statutes or regulations to describe the limited amount of time within which something must be done. Federal legislation uses a myriad of expressions to describe them: "as soon as possible", "as soon as practicable", "as soon as reasonably practicable", "as soon as practical", "forthwith", "immediately", "without delay", "within five days", etc. This article attempts to categorize the types of expressions found in legislation to describe time periods and recommends that standard terms be used to describe periods falling within a given category.

Categorization of Time Periods

Based on an examination of general and legal dictionaries and case law, it is very difficult to argue that a particular expression that does not use specific units of time has a precise meaning that should be used in a particular situation to the exclusion of other expressions. For example, the legal dictionaries tend to treat "without delay" and "immediately" as having the same meaning. Another factor that contributes to confusion is the use of variations of expressions that are probably intended to convey the same meaning. For example, there is the often-used "as soon as possible", while "as soon as practically possible" and "as soon as is reasonably possible having regard to the circumstances" have also been used.

For the purposes of this article, time periods, other than those that set out specific units of time, can be grouped into the following three categories:


It is recommended that the following words and expressions be used for the three categories described above . The addition of any other words to these expressions could cause ambiguity and is discouraged.

1. Shortest time period

The recommended terms to describe this time period are "immediately" and "without delay". These words should be used only if it is possible to act immediately. If the client department would permit the person having the duty to comply with the time period to do other things before complying with the duty, the expressions in the next category should be used.

There is an issue with using the expression "as soon as" something happens, e.g. a person has to do something "as soon as the person becomes aware" of a fact situation. This expression is usually intended to mean that the thing has to be done immediately after something else happens. The problem with this approach is that, literally, it requires the thing to be done the instant that the condition in the phrase is met. The issue can be avoided by inserting an "after" and using one of the recommended terms for this category; in other words, a person has to do something "immediately after the person becomes aware" of a fact situation. However, there may be occasions where adding "immediately after" may increase the complexity of the sentence to an undesirable degree. In these cases, the use of just "as soon as" would be acceptable.

2. Something must be done soon − taking the circumstances into account

The recommended terms to describe this time period are "as soon as feasible" and "as soon as the circumstances permit". "As soon as practicable" is also an alternative, but keep in mind that it is a term that is seldom used outside of legislative texts.

The following expressions are problematic:

"as soon as practical": This expression may introduce a very subjective test, suggesting that the person required to do the thing can take into account the cost and usefulness of doing the thing quickly.[1]

"as soon as (is) possible": While there are many cases in which this expression has been interpreted to mean "within a reasonable time",[2] there is also a common perception that it means "without delay".

"forthwith": Although this word has a generally accepted judicial sense that corresponds to the second category of time period, its use is discouraged because it is not plain language and its judicial sense may not be the same as the sense understood by the public.

3. Requirement to do something "within a reasonable time"

When the intention is that something is to be done quickly while taking into account the circumstances, the expression "within a reasonable time" should not be used as it does not convey the idea that the thing has to be done soon. Instead, the expressions recommended for the second category of time periods should be used.

The only time that the use of this expression is appropriate is when the client wants a requirement that the thing has to be done, but not necessarily soon, and wishes to provide a generous period of time for compliance.