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Limitation

This guide was last updated in May 2013.

Limitation periods impose time limits within which a party must bring a claim, or give notice of a claim to the other party. They are imposed by statute, primarily the Limitation Act. There are different limitation periods for different types of cause of action. For example, the limitation period is six years for a normal contract claim but 12 years if the contract was created by deed.

It will be necessary at the outset of any new claim to determine whether or not the limitation period has already expired. If it has, the claim will be 'statute barred' and the claimant may be prevented from bringing a claim against the alleged wrongdoer. If a claim proceeds out of time, the defendant will be able to plead the defence of limitation and the claimant will have the burden of proving that the cause of action arose within the relevant statutory period.

When does time run from?

Time runs from different dates depending on the cause of action. For example, in a negligence claim, time will usually run for six years from the date when the negligent act or omission occurred. In a contract claim, the limitation period will run from the date when the contract was breached. Other common time limits are listed below.

In respect of negligence claims, it is possible to bring a claim outside the six-year limitation period if the damage complained of was not discovered until after the expiry of this period. This is known as 'latent damage', and in these circumstances the claimant has three years from either the date of knowledge of loss or the date when it ought to have reasonably known about the loss. What constitutes what 'ought reasonably to have been known' depends on the circumstances of the case, and specific advice should always be sought.  There is a final time limit of 15 years from the date of the defending party's negligent act or omission.

Proceedings begin when the court receives the claim form. At this point, time will stop running for that cause of action. This is intended to protect the claiming party's right to sue while settlement discussions are ongoing. While any court proceedings can be amended later, with the court's permission, this permission will not extend to allowing a fresh cause of action to be included in the proceedings if the original time period has passed.

Limitation periods may be varied or excluded by agreement. However, a contractual term which imposes a shorter limitation period may be subject to a test for reasonableness under the Unfair Contract Terms Act. While this protects consumers, the courts are less willing to intervene with contractual limitations of liability agreed between sophisticated commercial entitles of equivalent bargaining strength. A defendant may also be prevented from relying on a defence of limitation by its conduct.

What are the applicable time limits?

Important limitation dates for some of the common causes of action are covered below.

Contract:

  • within six years of the date of breach;
  • the cause of action occurs as soon as the contract is breached - by contrast, in tort, no cause of action arises until all elements of duty, breach and damage are present;
  • unlike tort, the limitation period cannot be extended on latent damage grounds.

Contract under seal (deeds):

  • within 12 years of the breach of contract or deed.

Negligence (other than personal injury or death):

  • within six years of the negligent act or omission; or
  • (if later) within three years from the date of knowledge in cases of latent damage;
  • claims for negligent latent damage are barred 15 years after the negligent act or omission;
  • period runs from the date the damage is suffered;
  • for physical damage, the limitation period runs from the date of the damage itself – not the act which causes damage.

Personal injury or death:

  • within three years of the negligent act or omission, or knowledge of the negligent act or omission if later.

Tort (generally, including conversion and trespass):

  • within six years of the date of the cause of action.

Product liability claims:

  • within ten years of the relevant time defined in the Consumer Protection Act;
  • within three years subject to an overall limit of 10 years from the date of supply.

Fraud:

  • within six years;
  • time does not begin to run until the fraud has, or with reasonable diligence would have been, discovered if the defendant deliberately conceals any fact relevant to the cause of action.

Libel, slander and malicious falsehood:

  • within one year;
  • a fresh cause of action accrues every time the claimant is defamed.

A claim for the recovery of land, proceeds of sale or land or money secured by a mortgage or charge:

  • within 12 years from the right accruing – after that time, the claimant's title in the proceeds, land or mortgage is extinguished.

A claim for arrears of rent:

  • within six years of the date the rent became due.

An action for non-fraudulent breach of trust:

  • within six years of the date on which the right of action began.

An action claiming personal estate of a deceased person:

  • within 12 years of the date the right to receive the share or interest began.

An action for a contribution (entitlement to claim against another party who was jointly liable for a loss):

  • within two years of the right beginning.

To enforce a judgement:

  • within six years of the date on which the judgement became enforceable.

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