To bring a claim in the UK, the claimant must ensure they are within the relevant time limit.
Understanding how time limits work in the UK is not necessarily straightforward, as there are several different limitation periods for various different types of civil claim.
The rules are also further complicated by the fact that the date from which these periods of time will run can differ depending on the type of claim involved and, in some cases, may even require an assessment of when the claimant acquired the knowledge of their right to bring such claim.
Below we look at how these time limits apply and to what types of claim, as well as what exactly is meant by statute of limitations and whether we have a statute of limitations in the UK.
What is the statute of limitations in the UK?
Unlike other European countries or much of the United States, the UK has no official statute of limitations. This typically refers to the time limits for filing criminal charges against someone, after which time that person can no longer be prosecuted for the offence in question.
The UK does, however, have specific legislation in place to provide limitation periods within which a civil claim can be brought against a person or party. The limitation periods under the civil law of England and Wales are prescribed by the Limitation Act 1980. This is a statute of limitations which provides timescales within which action may be taken in civil cases only.
Once the relevant statutory limitation period has passed in the context of any given civil claim, this will usually provide the defendant with a valid defence on the grounds that the cause of action is “statute-barred”. This means the claim can be thrown out by the court, regardless of any substantive merits, simply because it has been brought out of time.
Why do prescribed time limits for civil claims exist?
For the claimant looking to recover monies rightly owed by the defendant, or seeking compensation for damage or injury sustained in consequence of the defendant’s negligence, the legislation limiting the time within which a civil claim can be initiated may seem unfair. However, there are good public policy reasons behind these prescribed time limits.
Absent any deadline for bringing a claim, individuals and organisations would be perpetually exposed to a risk of litigation in circumstances where the evidence, including the recollections of witnesses, is likely to diminish. As such, it could become difficult, or even impossible, for the courts to fairly adjudicate such a case, potentially resulting in an unjust outcome.
It is considered to be in the public interest to barr claims after a certain period of time has lapsed. for that particular type of claim.
The applicable time limits may vary as between different types of civil claim, but the purpose behind the rules always remains the same: to bring certainty and finality in litigation, and to avoid disputes over historic events where there can no longer be a fair trial.
What is the role of the Limitation Act 1980?
The Limitation Act 1980 plays an important role in the civil justice system in the UK, ensuring that appropriate prescribed time limits apply for different types of claim. That said, this legislation does not, in itself, prevent a claimant from issuing a claim, even if the limitation period has passed and they are technically “out of time”.
Instead, the provisions of the Act provide the defendant with a basis upon which they can ask the court to strike out the claim, together with an order in their favour for any costs incurred in so doing. In most cases, however, for the defendant to be able to raise this issue, and for the court to even consider it, the defendant must actively raise a limitation defence.
Once a limitation defence has been raised, it is for the claimant to show that their claim is not statute-barred. It is therefore still possible for the court to allow a claim to proceed, even where the defendant has expressly pleaded within their defence that the claim has been brought outside the prescribed limitation period. This could depend, for example, on the factual interpretation of the claimant’s date of knowledge of the facts giving rise to their claim.
It is also inherent within the provisions of the Limitation Act 1980 for the court to exercise its discretion to extend the time limits in certain cases, although there must be good reasons for so doing, such as fraud, deliberate concealment of facts by the defendant or mistake.
It is, however, clearly recognised that the rigid operation of limitation periods can sometimes produce harsh and unjust results, where some flexibility within the rules is deemed necessary to remove the possibility of injustice in limited cases.
Unfortunately, this approach can often create uncertainty as to the application of the legislation, where it is possible for the court to allow a claim to proceed, even where it is brought after the deadline date.
How do limitation periods apply to different types of claim?
There are various different types of civil claim that can be brought, each with different time limits under the Limitation Act 1980, as well as different dates that act as the point of trigger for these time limits. These include the following:
- Simple contract claims: the limitation period is 6 years from the date of the breach of contract, including, for example, debt recovery claims.
- Personal injury claims: 3 years from the date the injury occurred or the date of knowledge of the claimant becoming aware of the facts that give rise to their claim, whichever is later.
- Negligence claims (in respect of latent damage, such as in construction claims): the later of 6 years from the date the damage occurred or 3 years from the date on which the claimant had the requisite knowledge and the right to bring such an action, subject to a maximum period of 15 years from the negligent act or omission.
- Tort claims, ie; a civil wrong (excluding personal injury and latent damage): 6 years from the date the damage is suffered.
- Fraud claims: 6 years from when the claimant discovered the fraud, or when they could, with reasonable diligence, have discovered it.
- Defamation claims: 1 year from the defamatory statement being made, although it is possible to extend this time limit in certain circumstances, for example, where the defamed party did not discover the defamatory remark until a year after it had been made.
In practice, there will be claims that fall under multiple categories, and others that do not fall within any prescribed time limits at all, for example, a claim in fraud against the trustee of a trust is not subject to any limitation period (although a claimant must still not unreasonably delay).
There may also be exceptions to the general rule. For example, in personal injury claims where the claimant is a child, the clock does not start to run until the child turns 18, while a person suffering from a mental disability may have longer to bring a claim in some cases.
When does the clock start when calculating limitation periods?
The time at which a particular limitation period will start to run will vary as between different types of civil claim.
In broad terms, the limitation period will start to run at the time that the cause of action arises, although the date on which the cause of action actually accrues depends on the circumstances and claim being brought.
For contractual claims, the key date is the date of breach of contract. As a general rule, creditors therefore have 6 years to recover most types of unsecured debts, where the period generally begins from the point at which an individual or business falls into arrears or fails to make a repayment. Equally, for road traffic accidents or medical negligence claims, the 3-year limitation period will usually run from the date of the accident or injury.
In contrast, in some personal injury cases, the facts that give rise to the claim may not come to light until years later. This could be where a claimant-employee was historically exposed to harmful substances at work, but the limitation period may not run until they have a diagnosis of, for example, an asbestos-related disease. In this case, the claimant will have 3 years from the date of knowledge that the illness was caused by their working conditions.
When does the clock stop when calculating limitation periods?
The applicable limitation period, and when the clock stops, will again depend on the precise cause of action being relied upon. For most contractual and tortious claims, the limitation period is 6 years from the date on which the cause of action occurred.
However, when calculating the date on which the limitation period expires, the day on which the cause of action starts can be ignored in some cases. The net effect is that a claimant will normally have 6 years – plus one day – to commence the claim.
In this case, the Court of Appeal confirmed that where the cause of action accrues part-way through the day, that day will be disregarded, but when a cause of action accrues at the first moment of a particular day (based on a midnight deadline), that day is to be included when calculating the applicable limitation period.
How do Pre-Action Protocols impact limitation periods?
Pre-Action Protocols under the Civil Procedure Rules set out the steps that the court would normally expect parties to take before commencing proceedings for particular types of civil claims, often with a view to resolving the dispute without the claimant being required to bring the claim before the courts.
Given that there are usually multiple stages under the relevant protocol, including, for example, sending a letter of claim, a response from the defendant and holding a pre-action meeting, there may not always be enough time to comply with these requirements before the limitation period expires.
The pre-action protocol does not alter the statutory time limits for starting court proceedings. If a claim is issued after the relevant limitation period has expired, the defendant will still be entitled to use that as a defence to the claim. The parties may, however, be able to apply to the court for a stay (postponement) to complete the necessary pre-action steps.
Statute of Limitations FAQs
What is a statutory time limit?
A statutory time limit refers to a prescribed limitation period within which a claimant has to bring a civil claim. There are various different types of civil claim that can be brought, each with different time limits under the Limitation Act 1980, as well as different dates that act as the point of trigger for these periods.
Why does a statute of limitations exist?
A statute of limitations is effectively an expiry date for allegations of crimes. The fundamental principle behind this is to protect the potential accused from not being able to properly defend themselves against such allegations due to the erosion of evidence with the passage of time. Statutes of limitations only exist in the UK for minor criminal cases and in many civil claims.
Do debts have a time limit?
A debt claim is typically classed as a breach of contract claim for which a limitation period of 6 years will apply from the date of breach. As a general rule, creditors have 6 years to recover most types of unsecured debts, where the period generally begins from the point at which an individual or business falls into arrears or fails to make a repayment.
Do crimes have a time limit?
In the context of criminal offences, there are no statutory limits on the prosecution of crimes in the UK except for ‘summary’ offences. These are relatively low level offences tried in the magistrates’ court, where the general rule is that prosecutions will be time-barred if not brought before the court within 6 months after the date of the offence.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.