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

These limitation periods are subject to some exceptions. For instance, in personal injury cases involving a child, the limitation period does not start to run until the child reaches the age of 18; and a person under a mental disability may have longer to bring a claim in some cases.

The above list is not a complete list of the limitation periods under the Limitations Act 1980. In some cases, a claim could come under more than one of these categories. If you need to know the limitation period for a specific claim you should seek specialist legal advice.

When will the limitation period commence?

The limitation period will start to run at the time that the cause of action arises, ie. from the earliest time that the legal proceedings could first have been brought. This means that every fact which is required to commence an action must be in existence before the limitation period will start to run. In some cases, this may be some time – even years – after the event in question because an individual may not know they have a potential legal claim until certain issues (such as a medical condition) come to light.

For instance, in a breach of contract claim the limitation period will start to run from the date of the alleged breach by the defendant. This would apply regardless of how long ago the contract was entered into. The claim for breach of contract must then be brought within 6 years of the date the breach occurred. In a personal injury claim, a claimant may develop a serious lung condition 10 years after working in a factory. In this case, the claimant has three years from the date of knowledge that the illness was caused by their working conditions.

Situation where certain facts have been concealed from the claimant

In some cases, facts in relation to the claim may have been concealed from the claimant by the defendant. In these circumstance, the limitation period will only commence when the claimant becomes aware of these relevant facts, or the date that he or she should have become aware of them.

Does the Limitation Act 1980 only apply to civil claims?

The Limitation Act 1980 only applies to civil claims. In the case of criminal acts, there are no statutory limits on the prosecution of crimes in the UK except for ‘summary’ offences (offences tried in the magistrates’ court). In these cases, criminal proceedings must be brought within 6 months.

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Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.