An Overview of the English Limitation Act 1980

Criminal and civil proceedings have the best chance of succeeding, and the best chance of producing a fair and balanced result if they are pursued as soon as possible after the incident occurs. Over time, evidence is tainted or disappears, witness’ memories fade, documents are destroyed and people move on. As such, it is considered to be in the public interest to limit the amount of time during which a claim may be made.

The Limitation Act 1980 (“the Act”) is the English “statute of limitations” for cases brought under civil and common law, and prescribes the amount of time that a litigant has to commence legal action. The Act does not deal with criminal law, as there is no statute of limitations on any crime committed in England.

The Act is set out in two parts. The first sets out the limitation period in respect of a list of causes of action, and the second describes the exceptions to the general rule of limitation. Generally speaking, if the limitation period has expired, the cause of action can no longer be brought before the courts. This provides certainty to the parties and ensures that old causes cannot be dredged up long after they have occurred.

Main Limitation Periods

(A) Tort & Breach of Contract

In both cases, the general limitation is six years from the date the action arises. The exception is if a contract is made by deed, in which case the period extends to twelve years. That said, tort includes defamation (i.e. slander and libel) and personal injury, both of which are treated as special cases. Under the Act, a party claiming defamation had only one year to bring a claim from the date it occurred, however, this can be extended in extenuating circumstances, With personal injury, the limit is three years from the date it occurred or the date the injury is discovered (if this is later in time).

(B) Debts

If a creditor fails to contact a debtor within six years of the debt arising, the debtor is entitled to treat the debt as “written off” and the creditor will be time barred from bringing a claim. There are a number of exceptions to this general rule: (a) the creditor has brought a successful claim in the courts for the debt and has obtained a County Court Judgment; (b) the debtor has acknowledged the debt during that six year period; or (c) the debtor has made payment in part during that time. The rule is clear – a creditor must maintain contact with the debtor to ensure the six year period does not lapse.

Exceptions & Extensions

The length of time a person can make a claim can be extended if they suffer a “disability”. The limitation period does not start until they are no longer “disabled” of from when the die (in which event, their estate may claim). Under the Act, disability is defined very narrowly, meaning a person under the age of eighteen, or lacking the capacity to bring a legal action under the Mental Capacity Act 1985. In addition, the limitation clock does not start ticking if the injury or damage is not discovered due to fraud, mistake or concealment,

The court also has a discretionary right to extend or disapply the limitation periods for actions brought for death or personal injury if it is equitable to do so. The Act sets out a number of guidelines that the courts will review  when considering such a claim, including: (a) the length of, and reasons for, the delay; (b) any prevarication or lack of cooperation from the defendant; (c) how promptly and reasonably the claimant acted once they realized they had an action; and (d) any disability suffered by the claimant.