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Limitation of Actions Lecture
EFFECTS OF EXPIRY OF LIMITATION PERIODS
The effects of the limitation periods are procedural rather than substantive
in that they bar a remedy and do not extinguish the claim itself. Sir John
Donaldson MR stated:
‘it is trite law that the English Limitation Acts bar the remedy and not the
right, and furthermore, that they do not even have this effect unless and until
pleaded’. (Ronex Properties v John Laing Construction  QB 393, 404)
Exceptionally, rights themselves may be extinguished. For example, rights in
conversion are extinguished by lapse of time (s3 Limitation Act 1980) and rights
under the Consumer Protection Act 1987 are barred by the ten-year long stop
(s11A(3) Limitation Act 1980).
THE PRIMARY LIMITATION PERIOD IN TORT
The present limitation periods are mainly to be found in the Limitation Act
1980 (as amended by the Latent Damage Act 1986 and by the Consumer Protection
The basic principle is that actions in tort are subject to a limitation
period of six years from the date on which the cause of action accrued (s2). But
there are some important exceptions:
In actions in tort for damages for personal injury, the relevant
period is three years. This starts to run either from the date on which the
cause of action accrued or from the date upon which the person injured first
had knowledge of his injury (ss 11 and 14).
A discoverability test is provided for in cases of latent damage to
property, considered below (ss14A, 14B).
The normal limitation period for claims under the Consumer Protection
Act 1987, whether for personal injuries or for other forms of damage
actionable under that Act, is three years (s11A).
The limitation period for defamation claims is also three years (s57
Administration of Justice Act 1985).
THE ACCRUAL OF THE CAUSE OF ACTION
The limitation period begins to run from the date on which the claimant’s
cause of action accrued. In torts actionable per se (such as battery or
conversion) the claimant will normally be aware of the act of interference which
constitutes the tort.
In torts requiring damage, the cause of action accrues when the damage is
first sustained, regardless of the claimant’s knowledge. Although the damage may
increase in scale and extent over time, the cause of action accrues when the
damage first starts to occur and there will be no new cause of action unless a
fresh causative factor is involved or a different kind of damage is sustained.
THE DISCOVERABILITY TESTS
As far as personal injury caused by negligence, nuisance, or other breach of
duty (including contractual and statutory duties) is concerned, the 1980 Act
provides that the relevant limitation period is three years from either the
occurrence of the damage or the ‘date of knowledge’ of the injured party (s11(2)
Should the claimant die without initiating an action within this three-year
period, the period is extended to a further three years either from his death or
from the ‘date of knowledge’ of the personal representative (s11(4)-(6)).
Similarly with claims under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976, there will be no claim
if the claimant’s own claim would have been time-barred, but if not, the
deceased’s dependants have three years to bring their fatal Accidents Act claim
either from his death or from their ‘date of knowledge’ (ss12-13).
The ‘date of knowledge’ is defined by s14(1) of the 1980 Act as the first
date on which the claimant has knowledge of the following facts:
(a) that the injury in question was significant; and
(b) that the injury was attributable in whole or in part to the act or
omission which is alleged to constitute negligence, nuisance or breach of
(c) the identity of the defendant; and
(d) if it is alleged that the act or omission was that of a person other
than the defendant, the identity of that person and the additional facts
supporting the bringing of an action against the defendant.
There is a separate regime in the Limitation Act 1980, as amended by the
Latent Damage Act 1986, for latent damage in cases of negligence leading to
property or financial loss (for personal injury see ss11-14, above).
Section 14A(4)(a) begins by preserving the basic rule that the period of
limitation starts with the accrual of the cause of action and runs for six
Section 14A(4)(b) then sets up an exception in the case of latent defects, in
respect of which there is a three-year period from the ‘earliest date on which
the plaintiff or any person in whom the cause of action was vested before him
had both the knowledge required for bringing an action for damages in respect of
the relevant damage and a right to bring the action’.
‘Knowledge’ is defined in more or less the same way as it is for
personal-injury cases (above).
Section 14B then provides for a ‘long-stop’ according to which the claimant
will necessarily be time-barred once fifteen years have elapsed from the
defendant’s breach of duty.
In addition, s3 of the latent Damage Act 1986 provides that in the case of
successive owners of property with a latent defect which has not yet been
discovered, a fresh cause of action accrues each time a new purchaser acquires
an interest. Hence the new purchaser will be able to take advantage of the
discoverability period of three years.
Finally, the 1986 Act provides that the provisions of ss14A and 14B of the
1980 Act and s3 of the 1986 Act do not affect causes of action accruing before
the 1986 Act came into force (18 September 1986).
SECTION 33 LIMITATION ACT 1980
Under s33, the court has a wider power to ‘disapply’ the normal time-limits
on actions in respect of personal injury and death. The Limitation Act 1980 lays
down six guidelines for the exercise of this power:
(a) the length of and reasons for the claimant’s delay;
(b) the extent to which the cogency of evidence adduced by either party
might be affected by the delay;
(c) the defendant’s conduct after the cause of action arose, including his
response to requests by the claimant for information or inspection for the
purpose of ascertaining relevant facts;
(d) the duration of a disability of the claimant after the cause of action
(e) the extent to which the claimant acted promptly and reasonably once he
knew whether or not the act or omission of the defendant might be capable of
giving rise to an action for damages; and
(f) the steps taken by the claimant to obtain expert advice and the nature
of the advice he received.
LEGAL DISABILITY, FRAUD OR CONCEALMENT
The court can extend the normal limitation rules in a case where the claimant
was under a disability of some kind at the point when the cause of action
accrued (ss 28 and 28A). For the purposes of this Act a person shall be treated
as under a disability while he is an infant, or of unsound mound (s38(3)).
The court can also postpone the limitation period in cases of fraud,
concealment or mistake (s32). The period of limitation shall not begin to run
until the claimant has discovered the fraud, concealment or mistake or could
with reasonable diligence have discovered it. However, this does not apply to
property purchased for valuable consideration by an innocent third party
(s32(3)), the Consumer Protection Act 1987 long-stop period (s32(4A) and
s11A(3), and the Fatal Accidents Act 1976 (s32(4A) and s12(1)).
Notes adapted from Markesinis & Deakin, Tort Law, 4th Edition
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