Limitation Period in Court Cases

In England and Wales, almost all claims are subject to limitation periods, that means a deadline by which the Claimant needs to bring the proceedings. 

Calculating the limitation period can be difficult as limitation periods vary depending on the type of claim. 

This post sets out the most common limitation periods that people are likely to come across.

Contractual Claims

Possibly the most common limitation period that people will come across is that to commence a claim for breach of contract. Section 5 Limitation Act 1980 (“the Act”), has a limitation period of six years in which such a claim must be brought. This time limit runs from the date that the contract was breached, not the date at which any loss was suffered by the prospective Claimant.

The Court has no discretion to allow a claim to be brought outside of this six-year limitation period.

Claims in Tort

Claims in tort (eg a claim for professional negligence, nuisance or trespass) are subject to a general limitation period of six years (s2 of the Act). Limitation in tort claims runs from the date upon which the Claimant suffers the damage caused by the tort. This may actually be some time after the actual wrongful act is committed.

If the Claimant finds out about the breach at a later date, s14A creates a secondary limitation period for tort claims. This runs for three years from the date the Claimant has the requisite knowledge to understand that he has a claim. There is a longstop date of 15 years from the date of the wrongful act and that is an absolute bar that cannot be varied by the discretion of the Court.

Personal Injury Claims

Personal Injury claims are subject to a special limitation period of three years (s11). The period begins to run either on the date that the damage occurred, or (if later) the date on which the Claimant became aware of the damage.

The limitation period for PI claims can be extended by an application pursuant to s33 of the Act. An extension is however only granted at the discretion of the court and these are notoriously difficult applications.

Defamation Claims

Any claim for Defamation (libel or slander) or malicious falsehood, must be brought within a period of one year from the date of the defamatory or malicious act (s4A). As this is a relatively short time, there is a provision in s32A of the Act to allow a party to apply to bring a defamation claim after the one-year time limit has expired. It is, however, completely at the Court’s discretion as to whether or not it allows such an application to succeed. It is suggested that it is unlikely such an application would succeed if the Claimant had knowledge of the defamatory or malicious conduct before the expiry of one-year limitation period.

Actions to Recover Land / Actions Under a Deed

Actions to recover land (or an interest in an estate) have a primary limitation period of 12 years (s15). This runs from the date of which the claim first accrued. If a Claimant does not act within this period, any interest in an estate that he may believe he has will be considered to have been extinguished.

Although it would often be an action under a deed, a claim for rent arrears has its own special limitation period of six years (s19).

Claims in Equity

For claims that are purely in equity rather than a legal cause of action, there is no limitation period. However, an action in equity may still be time barred pursuant to the ancient principles of latches and acquiescence. This is a discretionary power open to the Court. It allows a judge to declare a claim in equity to be time-barred where it appears that the Claimant has either: acquiesced to the actions of the Defendant, or has delayed so long that it would not now be fair to allow the claim to continue.

Exceptions to Limitation

There are a couple of situations in which the normal limitation period will not run. The two situations are either disability or fraud.

For disability, this is where a Claimant is disabled (he/she lacks the mental capacity to bring the claim) at the time that the cause of action arises. If the Claimant is in such a condition, the limitation period will not run until the Claimant ceases to be disabled. However, in a case where a limitation period has already started to run, but a Claimant later becomes disabled, the disability would not stop the limitation period. It would instead continue to run, even during their period of subsequent disability.

The second situation in which limitation will not run, is in cases of fraud, concealment, or mistake. It concerns a situation where a Defendant has committed fraud or has concealed his wrongdoing. In this situation, the limitation period will not start to run until the fraud or concealed wrongdoing is uncovered by the Claimant.

Finally, limitation only runs on a person’s claim when they are at least 18 years old. Therefore, should a cause of action arise for a child (eg, should a child be injured and be able to bring a personal injury claim), then that limitation period will not start to run until his 18th birthday.

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