Most people will have heard of time limitations in the context of criminal law and that there is a limit of time in some types of cases after which prosecutions cannot be taken. However limitations also apply to civil law. Laws impose obligations on a person who seeks to take a case to do so within a certain period of time from the event or incident which gives rise to the claim. If proceedings are not initiated within the appropriate time limit a case can be deemed to be statute barred.
The logic behind this is that a defendant should know after a period of time that a claim is not going to be taken and they should be relieved of any responsibility. This is also important to ensure that witness testimony is still fresh in the witnesses’ minds and can be regarded as relatively accurate.
The Statute of Limitations 1957 contains the main source of limitation provisions, however there is a wealth of other legislation specifying limitation periods for various areas of law. The European Court of Justice has decided that individual member states are entitled to set time limits for claims and such time limits are not contrary to European law.
Factors Affecting Limitation Periods
Many limitation periods are set out in legislation (some of which we detail below) which also have exceptions to those general rules in specified circumstances. There are also many other factors which can affect a limitation period.
The date from which the limitation period can run is subject to much case law. For instance, in medical negligence cases there is a discoverability rule and time will only run from the time that the plaintiff discovers he has suffered an injury relevant to an alleged act of medical negligence. In cases alleging professional negligence the time period for taking a claim of six years has been upheld by the Supreme Court even in circumstances where the potential plaintiff was not aware that he even had a claim. In such circumstances there is no such discoverability rule.
Limitation is also affected by whether the plaintiff is a child, a person of unsound mind, a victim of child sexual abuse, death of the plaintiff or defendant, where matters are concealed by fraud and where estoppel can be invoked. Actions can be dismissed for want of prosecution. Part payment or acknowledgement can also affect limitation.
We often provide advice and representation in respect of when limitation periods run from for children and those of unsound mind. Children have two years after their eighteenth birthday to take a claim. For instance a claim may be in respect of events which have taken place when the plaintiff is a child and which has caused psychological disturbances. We have successfully advanced arguments for adults outside of the limitation period on the basis that limitation has not started to run because they come under the unsound mind exception.
Recent Cases on Limitation Periods
In a recent Supreme Court case equitable estoppel prevented the defendant from successfully raising the defence that the case was statute barred as the defendant had admitted liability and had entered into negotiations to settle the case prior to the plaintiff instigating proceedings after the limitation date had passed. This case was relied upon successfully in practice for clients when they sought representation from us. Prior to this they had been dealing with insurers themselves until they were told their claim was statute barred.
Cases in the Injuries Board process are affected by the statute of limitations. Once a case has been accepted by the Injuries Board, the statute of limitations does not run for the period the case is in and until six months has passed from the date it is released from the Injuries Board (the date of authorisation to issue legal proceedings).
In a recent High Court case it was held that the Injuries Board authorisation to issue legal proceedings was issued on the date it was received by the claimant and not on the date of the document itself. Time only began running under the statute again when the claimant solicitor actually received the authority in the solicitor’s office.
Some Common Limitations For Taking an Action
Limitation periods for actions for the recovery of land are generally twelve years, for instance a judgment mortgagee has twelve years from the date the judgment became enforceable to seek an order for sale. However this can vary between sixty and six years depending on the type of action and if the State is the plaintiff.
Actions for breach of contract have a limitation period of six years unless it is of a particular type of contract under seal where the limitation period is twelve years. By way of example a customer would have six years to take an action where a company breached a contract for the sale and supply of goods.
Actions in tort (other than personal injuries or defamation) generally have limitation periods of six years. Tort actions also include professional negligence claims (as can contract claims).
Actions claiming damages for personal injuries arising out of negligence generally have a limitation period of two years.
Limitations for defamation actions have recently been reduced to one year (with possible extensions to two years) by the Defamation Act 2009.
For criminal actions limitations vary. Generally for summary offences the gardaí must make a complaint to the District Court within six months of the offence. For indictable offences in the Circuit Court or Central Criminal Court there are no limitation time periods, for instance a murderer could be brought to justice twenty years after a murder (subject to excessive delays and fair procedure).
Employment law has some of the shortest limitation times. Of the numerous varying limitation periods examples include four weeks for certain appeals, six months for some unfair dismissal claims and fifty two weeks for some redundancy payment claims.
There are also a variety of limitations in relation to landlord and tenant law and also in respect of probate matters and probate litigation.
It is always important for people considering pursuing claims to be aware that there are strict legal time limits and not to let matters drift. Some limitation periods can be as short as four weeks. Accordingly it is vital to obtain legal advice immediately on all possible claims in any area of law to avoid a claim becoming statute barred. The law on limitation periods can be complicated with many deciding factors and each individual case must be assessed by an experienced solicitor to ensure the correct advice is received to avoid becoming statute barred.
There are general limitation periods for areas of law such as contract, tort, personal injuries, property, crime, employment, probate and landlord and tenant law.
There are many factors which can affect limitation periods.
When a claim is made after the expiry of a limitation period it is statute barred and generally no remedy is then available for the injured or wronged party.
Legal advice should be sought immediately if it is believed a legal action or claim may be possible.