Skip to main content

Translation Available

English (United Kingdom)

What are limitation periods under UK Law?

Yasmina Villar-Lopez explains what limitation periods are, why they are in place and what the limitation periods are for different types of claims.

Under the laws of England and Wales, it is considered unfair for individuals or organisations to be perpetually exposed to litigation for wrongful acts or omissions.

It is also considered that the level of evidence such as witnesses’ memories or documentary evidence may be lost or weakened if a significant amount of time has passed following a wrongful act, which means that it can become difficult if not impossible to provide a fair judgement. It is therefore deemed to be in the public interest that claims are barred by statute after a certain period of time has elapsed.

Limitation periods impose time limits within which a party may bring a claim or give notice of a claim to the other party. These are fixed by the Limitation Act 1980 and vary depending on the type of civil claim involved.

It is important to be aware of all relevant limitation dates because once the limitation period has passed, the claim will be considered as ‘time barred’ and could be struck out. Whilst a court may still allow a claim to proceed after the limitation period has passed, there would normally have to be very good reasons for the court to allow it. Therefore, it would be extremely risky to issue a claim after the limitation period has elapsed.

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 six months.

What is the limitation period for each kind of civil claim?

Limitation periods are set out in the Limitation Act 1980. We have made a list summarising the limitation periods for the most common types of civil claims, but this list is not complete. Therefore, if you require information about the limitation period of a claim not included on this list, you should check on the Limitation Act 1980 directly or seek legal advice.

Contract claims

  • Claims in relation to a simple contract: 6 years from the date the cause of action accrued — Section 5 of the LA 1980
  • Claims in relation to contracts under seal, bond, deed or covenant: 12 years from the date the cause of action accrued — Section 8 of the LA 1980

Tort claims

  • Tort claims (other than personal injury, actions under the Consumer Protection Act 1987, latent damage and defamation): 6 years from the date the cause of action accrued

Personal injury claims

  • Claims for damages for death or personal injury arising in negligence, nuisance or breach of duty (including actions under the Fatal Accidents Act 1976): 3 years from whichever is later of:
    • the date of death or cause of action accrued or
    • the date of knowledge of the personal representative/the person for whose benefit the action is brought.
    • the date when a claimant first had knowledge of the injury

Please note that the court has discretion to exclude this time limit in certain cases.

Actions under the Consumer Protection Act 1987

  • Actions in respect of a defective product in which the damages claimed by the claimant consist of or include damages in respect of death or personal injury of the claimant or any other person or loss of or damage to any property:  3 years from whichever is the later of:
    • the date of death or cause of action accrued or
    • the date of the personal representative’s knowledge (death claims)
    • the date when a claimant first had knowledge of the injury.

In any event, the action must be brought within 10 years from the “relevant time” (i.e. the time when the product was supplied)

Other types of claims

  • Claims in relation to awards in arbitration: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to debt arising under statute: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to recovery of land: 12 years
  • Claims in relation to breach of trust: 6 years
  • Claims in relation to defamation and malicious falsehood: 1 year

Other limitation periods outside of the scope of the Limitation Act 1980

1. Limitation period for personal injury claims sustained following accidents on flights or in the process of embarking/disembarking flights:

These claims are subject to the Montreal Convention 1999, incorporated into English law by the Carriage by Air Act 1961 (as amended by the Carriage by Air Acts (Implementation of the Montreal Convention 1999) Order 2002).

Article 35 of the Montreal Convention establishes that:

“1. The right to damages shall be extinguished if an action is not brought within a period of two years, reckoned from the date of arrival at the destination, or from the date on which the aircraft ought to have arrived, or from the date on which the carriage stopped.

2. The method of calculating that period shall be determined by the law of the court seised of the case.”

It is important to note that the two-year limitation period under the Montreal Convention is strict. This means that there is no possibility of extending it as there is under section 33 of the English Limitation Act 1980.

2. Limitation period for claims arising from international carriage of passengers by sea 

These claims are subject to the 1974 Athens Convention, which concerns the carriage of passengers by sea and covers liability of a carrier to a passenger for death and personal injury, and for loss and damage to luggage. The Athens Convention has been in force in the UK since 1996 by virtue of section 183 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 but it is important to note that it is only applicable to international cruises and not domestic ones.

Personal injury and lost baggage claims under the Athens Convention also have a shorter limitation period of two years under Article 16 than the normal limitation period of 3 years for personal injury claims under English law, which starts to run from the date of disembarkation.

This limitation period is also strict with no possibility of extensions.

When does the limitation period start?

The limitation period starts to run when the cause of action arises or when an individual becomes aware or should become aware that he may have a legal claim.

For instance, in a personal injury claim, a claimant may develop a serious health 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 his working conditions. Another example would be the limitation period on breach of contract claims, which starts to run from the date of the alleged breach by the defendant, regardless of how long ago the contract was entered into.

There are other cases where important facts in relation to the claim may have been concealed from the claimant. In such cases, the limitation period will start to run when the claimant becomes aware of these relevant facts, or the date that he or she should have become aware of them.

Please also note that some of these limitation periods are also subject to exceptions. For example, on personal injury cases involving children, the limitation period will not start to run until the child reaches the age of 18.

For ‘Protected Persons’ — defined in the Limitation Act 1980 as people who are incapable of managing their property and affairs due to mental disorder — the three year limitation period will start to run from the date when the person ceased to be under a disability. If such a person is never capable of bringing proceedings for themselves e.g. in the case of a severe brain injury, there is no time limit for commencing the claim.

In any event, it is important to note that limitation periods depend on the substantive law applicable to the case. If the law applicable to a particular case is that of another country, the limitation period may be very different.  For example, the limitation period to commence a personal injury claim under Spanish law is only one year (from the date of the accident/consolidation of injuries), whereas in French law it is ten years, even if the claim is pursued in England and Wales.  For that reason, it is always crucial to seek immediate legal advice to ensure that your claim is pursued within the relevant limitation period.

For further guidance on limitation periods, contact our insurance lawyers.

Sectors and Services featured in this article