What are limitation periods under UK law?

What is meant by a limitation period?

Limitation periods under the civil law of England and Wales are fixed by the Limitation Act 1980. These are fixed periods of time during which formal civil proceedings must be started. The limitation period varies depending on the type of civil claim involved.

Once the limitation period has passed, the defendant to a legal claim made by the claimant beyond the limitation period can defend it as ‘time barred’ – ie. the claim could be thrown out because it has been brought too late and is outside the prescribed period of limitation.

What is the purpose of limitation periods?

The reason behind limitation periods is essentially ‘public policy’. Under the laws of England and Wales, it is unfair and contrary to public policy for individuals or organisations to be perpetually exposed to litigation for wrongful acts or omissions. When a significant time has passed following a wrongful act, witnesses’ recollections and memories may fade, documentary evidence may be lost and other evidence may be weakened. This means it can become difficult or impossible to properly adjudicate a case and prevent justice being served.

It is therefore deemed to be in the public interest that claims are barred by statute after a certain period of time has elapsed.

Will the limitation period defence automatically apply?

In theory, no. A civil claim can still be made by the claimant even if the limitation period has passed. If the defendant wishes to strike it out on the basis that it is time barred, it must actively raise this as a defence.

The court can still allow a claim can proceed, even where the limitation period has passed. However, the claim would have to be extremely strong for the court to do so, and there would normally have to be very good reasons for the court to allow the claim to continue; for instance, if the claim is not defended.

Are limitation periods for all claims comprised in the Limitation Act 1980?

The Limitation Act 1980 sets out the limitation periods for many different types of claim. However, it is not all-encompassing as other statutes set the limitation period for some specialist claims.

What is the limitation period for different kinds of claim?

The relevant limitation periods for different kinds of claim as set out in the Limitation Act 1980:

  • Claims in relation to a contract: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to awards in arbitration: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to debt arising under statute: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to personal injury: 3 years
  • Claims in relation to negligence: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to recovery of land: 12 years
  • Claims in relation to breach of trust: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to tort: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to defamation and malicious falsehood: 1 year

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For more information on:

  • When will the limitation period commence?
  • Situation where certain facts have been concealed from the claimant
  • Does the Limitation Act 1980 only apply to civil claims?