Statute of Limitations
A statute of limitations in UK law is used to describe how long you have to bring legal action in civil cases. Limitation periods in civil law throughout England and Wales are defined by the Limitation Act 1980.
If a statute of limitations period has expired and the claimant still pursues the claim, a defendant can simply cite the term ‘time barred’ as a defence. This basically means that the claim is thrown out because it is outside of the limitation period.
The Role of Limitation Periods
The statute of limitations period is there for a reason and this reason is often attributed to public policy. In the laws of England and Wales it is deemed to be contrary to public policy and unfair for an individual or business to bring a civil claim once a certain period of time has passed.
This is because the defendant may go through unnecessary litigation for a wrongful omission or act. When a considerable amount of time has elapsed following the incident the recollections of claimants and witnesses will fade, documentary evidence may be misplaced and other evidence significantly weakened.
This means that it can be very difficult, if not impossible to preside over a case and reach an informed decision about the claim. As a result it is thought to be in the interests of the public to bar claims by statute after a certain amount of time following the incident.
However, the statute of limitations period as a defence does not, in theory automatically apply. Civil claims can be instigated by the claimant even if the limitation period has expired. If a defendant would like to strike the claim out on the grounds of it being time barred this must be raised as part of the defence. Even where the limitation period has elapsed, the Court can still grant permission for the case to proceed.
However the case would have to be compelling and strong enough for the court to do this and there must be a good reason for allowing the claim to continue.
Under the Limitation Act 1980 there are specific time-scales set out for various types of claim in civil proceedings.
These statute of limitations periods are:
- Defamation or Malicious Falsehood Claims – 1 year
- Personal Injury Claims – 3 years
- Contract Claims – 6 years
- Arbitration Claims – 6 years
- Debt which arises under statute – 6 years
- Negligence Claims – 6 years
- Breach of trust Claims – 6 years
- Tort Claims – 6 years
- Recovery of Land Claims – 12 years
This list is by no means exhaustive in terms of the limitation periods for civil claims and there are certain exceptions that must be observed.
These exceptions usually relate to:
- Personal injury claims which involve children. In this instance, the six year limitation period does not begin until the child reaches the age of 18
- An individual classed as having a mental disability. The period for bringing a claim is considerably longer than the standard six years
Furthermore in certain cases it may be that a claim falls under multiple categories. If you are unsure about the time-scales for bringing any type of civil claim or what category it belongs to it is advised that you consult a legal professional who should be able to advise further.
Start of the Limitation Period
If you are considering any type of civil action it is important that you understand when the limitation period begins so you know how long you have to initiate formal legal proceedings. Limitation periods begin when the action arises, or in other words the earliest date from which legal proceedings could be brought. This will mean that every fact required to instigate legal proceedings must exist before the limitation period begins.
In some instances this may be years from the event in question because the claimant may not realise that they have a valid claim until certain legal issues such as a breach of contract are identified.
In a breach of contract case for example the limitation period will begin from the date of the alleged breach by the defendant, even if the contract was entered into years before. The breach of contract claim must be initiated within six years of the breach. Where the claim relates to a personal injury, if for example a claimant develops an occupation related industrial disease many years after exposure. In a situation such as this the three year limitation period will begin from the diagnosis or the date at which the condition was discovered.
In some cases the limitation period would only begin when a potential claimant becomes aware of relevant facts or the date from which they should have been aware of them. Usually in these cases certain facts may have been concealed from the claimant by the defendant.
Statute of Limitations for Negligent Latent Defects
Claims are sometimes made under the Latent Damage Act which was introduced to extend the existing six year limitation period. When there is a negligence claim for latent defects such as a defect in a property such as a significant fault in the workmanship, materials or design of the property which existed at the time the property was constructed but was not apparent at the time of completion, a claim can be brought.
Where a latent defect is found, the limitation periods will be as follows:
- Three years from the earliest date on which the potential claimant knew or ought to have been aware of material facts required to initiate a negligence claim
- Six years from the cause of action being identified
These types of claims are subject to a maximum limit of fifteen years from the date the damage became known.
The Latent Damage Act introduces the term ‘discoverability’ which makes a provision for a further three year period from the discovery of the defect. The Latent Damage Act however is only of some use to certain construction related claims. The majority of construction contracts will exclude or severely restrict the scope of liability which is often defined in the original contract.
Where there is no mention of limitation periods in a contract and it is governed by English law, the statutory limitation periods will apply in line with the Limitation Act.
At the moment the Limitation Act 1980 is only applicable to civil claims. In a criminal case there are no limits to bringing a case with the exception of a summary offence. Summary offences are those which are heard in the magistrate’s court and criminal proceedings must begin within a six month period.
About the author:
This article was written by a member of the Expert Answers legal advice team and posted by Lloyd Barrett. Expert Answers provides online legal advice on all aspects of UK Law to users in the United Kingdom.