Wednesday the 29th July 2009: The Law Reform Commission's Consultation Paper on Limitation of Actions (Statute of Limitations) will be launched by Mr Justice John MacMenamin, Judge of the High Court, at the Commission's offices at 6pm this evening.
The Consultation Paper forms part of the Commission’s Third Programme of Law Reform 2008-2014, and involves a general examination of the rules on time limits for bringing civil actions, many of which are contained in the Statute of Limitations 1957, as amended. The Consultation Paper makes 24 provisional recommendations for reform of the law.
The meaning and purpose of the Statute of Limitations
The Statute of Limitations sets down specific time limits available to a person to initiate a civil claim against another person (the Statute of Limitations has nothing to do with criminal cases: there is, for example, no actual time limit within which a murder charge must be brought). It allows the person a specific amount of time within which to bring the claim: for example, 6 years from a breach of contract, such as failing to make a repayment on a loan. If the person fails to begin proceedings within the time allowed, the defendant has a full defence that the case is out of time (“statute-barred”). The defendant then cannot be sued.
Complexity of, and archaic rules in, the Statute of Limitations
The 80 sections that make up the Statute of Limitations 1957 involve a complex series of rules that determine: what the relevant limitation period is, when it starts running, and the possibility of an extension of the time limit for some reason, such as the potential litigant being under age at the time of an incident.
The Commission notes that the complexity of the rules in the 1957 Statute has actually resulted in costly litigation on what time limit applies in a specific case. This is, therefore, a major cost for litigants, including businesses and the State, and a modern Statute of Limitations should prevent many of these inefficiencies in the future.
The Statute of Limitations 1957 contains seven different limitation periods (1, 2, 3, 6, 12, 30 and 60 years) that apply to a wide range of civil actions. These are divided into a number of general headings, including what are called common law actions. This includes the main, high-volume, civil actions in the courts, such as claims concerning contracts (including debt-related claims) and torts (including personal injury actions).
As well as the complexity of the rules in the 1957 Statute, the reasons for which a specific limitation applies to a particular action can often be traced back to 17th Century legislation. For example, the current 6 year limitation period for contract cases was first set out in the Limitation Act 1623. While a 6 year time limit may have made sense in an era of slow communications, this cannot be justified in a time of virtually instantaneous communication.
Key recommendation: a simplified “core limitations” law
The Consultation Paper reviews limitation laws in many other States, and notes that a trend has emerged of more simplified and streamlined limitations laws. These are usually called “core limitations” laws. The key features of core limitations regimes in other States are: (1) an across-the-board (uniform) basic limitation period that applies to virtually all civil actions; (2) a uniform commencement date; and (3) a uniform ultimate limitation period (“long-stop”). The Commission provisionally recommends that some form of core limitations law should be introduced in Ireland. (Note: the Paper does not deal with land-related claims. Some relevant time limits are now dealt with in the Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Act 2009, based on previous Commission recommendations; others are being dealt with in the Commission’s project on Adverse Possession).
Some detailed recommendations
Some of the detailed recommendations in the Consultation Paper are that: there should be either: (1) one basic limitation period of general application, running for a period of two years; or (2) three basic limitation periods of specific application, of one, two and six years; the basic limitation period should run from the date of knowledge of the plaintiff there should be an ultimate limitation period (“long stop”) of 12 years the ultimate limitation period should apply to contract and tort cases, including personal injuries actions there could be a judicial discretion to extend the time limits in exceptional cases (for example, in cases associated with asbestos exposure).