What is a statute of limitations?
A statute of limitations is a law that sets a time limit for filing criminal charges against someone. After the time limit has passed, the government cannot prosecute, try, or punish a person regardless of the evidence against him or her. The case is said to be 'statute barred'.
The purpose of having a statutory limitation period is to prevent charges from being raised that date so far back into the past that defence against the charges is difficult and expensive. Evidence might be difficult to obtain, testimony may be clouded, and the defendant may not receive a fair trial.
Most countries in which limitation periods apply usually have exceptions for certain types of case. Capital crimes usually have no time limit in which they can be prosecuted, and others such as tax evasion may have an extended period.
Does the UK have a statute of limitations?
In the UK, Parliament has not passed an Act that provides a statute of limitations.
However, there are time limits in which criminal proceedings and civil claims must be brought.
Summary offences, which are ones tried exclusively in the magistrates’ court must be brought within 6 months under the Magistrates Courts Act 1980. Additionally, some law gives a maximum time period in which a person must be notified that there is an intention to prosecute.
Statutes of limitations do exist in many other countries, notably in the United States of America, India and Germany.
Time limits for claims in the UK
There are time limits in which legal proceedings for civil cases must be brought in the United Kingdom.
Limitation periods start from the date of the cause of action, the first date at which a claim might be able to be made and usually the date at which there is some evidence of wrongdoing.
In most cases, the date of the cause of action is the date that the contract was broken. In cases where there has been negligence, it is the date at which the negligence became apparent.
The limitation period varies depending for different types of civil claim.
Time periods for certain types of claims
Breach of contract, including non-payment of debt
Tort claims, such as those arising from breach of contract must generally be made within 6 years.
If the matter relates to the failure to repay a debt and the debt is secured with a mortgage, the period may be longer – up to 12 years.
Fraud claims must be brought within 6 years. However, this is from the date on which the claimant discovered the fraud, or with reasonable diligence could have become aware of it.
As with all contractual claims, it is important not only to document breach of contract (such as keeping messages between you, photographs or copies of work done but not completed or other evidence) but also the timing as to how the breach unfolded. Your testimony as to what happened when may be important.
Personal injury claims for compensation if a defective product or service causes damage to property, injury to a person or death typically must be made within three years of the event.
However, the limitations period may be extended if the damage only became evident much later. For example, an employee might have been exposed to a dangerous substance at work 30 years earlier, but it is only when cancer as a result of that exposure is diagnosed that limitations period starts.
Similarly, medical negligence, where a patient dies because of poor medical treatment must also be made within 3 years of the person’s death. Because it is the injured party who must claim (in this case, the dependents of the deceased), with so much else often going on (such as arranging a funeral) and difficulty in obtaining evidence and expert testimony, medical negligence cases often are brought late.
Claims relating to the quality of work in the construction of buildings may be made within 15 years of the fault becoming apparent. Time limits for breach of contract regarding construction remain at 6 years. If your builder fails to complete the job, you would have 6 years in which to claim. If the builder finishes the job and later it becomes apparent that the workmanship was poor, you might have longer in which to claim. The rationale for a greater period is that structural problems might take longer to appear.
A claim for defamation must be made within one year. If there is good reason why the period should be extended, usually because the injured party did not hear about the defamation until much later, a judge may decide that the time limit can be extended.
However, if the time period is extended, a defendent might be able to claim that the injury couldn't be so great if the effect was not immediately noticed.