This Commons Library briefing paper considers the time limits for bringing sexual abuse claims in the civil courts in England and Wales and in Scotland.Jump to full report >>
The “limitation period” is the time within which one person may bring a civil action against another. The current rules on limitation periods in civil proceedings are complex. Different periods apply to different causes of action.
The time limit for bringing a civil claim for personal injury is:
or, (if later):
If the injury, including sexual abuse, was suffered by a child, the three year period does not start to run until the person is eighteen.
The court has discretion to allow a personal injury claim to be brought, even if the limitation period has expired. The court must have regard to all the circumstances of the case and must take into account a list of factors set out in the Limitation Act 1980, including the length of delay in commencing proceedings and the reasons for that delay. Having identified the reasons, the court must then consider whether or not there is an equitable (ie just) reason to justify not applying the normal limitation period to the case.
It used to be considered that the extendable three year time limit applied only to negligently caused injury and not to deliberately caused injury, such as sexual abuse, for which the time limit was a fixed period of six years. People who were victims of abuse when they were children, but who did not bring proceedings against their alleged abusers until they were much older, could find that the rules resulted in their claims being time‑barred. This situation was criticised by many. However, in a landmark ruling in January 2008, the House of Lords Appellate Committee (the highest appeal court at the time) held that its own earlier decision on this matter was wrong, and that the limitation period for intentionally caused injury, including sexual abuse cases, should also be an extendable period of three years.
The Law Commission had already recommended that the current rules on limitation periods be replaced with a single “core regime” which would apply to most civil actions. In personal injury claims, there would be an extendable limitation period of three years, whether the claim concerned was made in negligence or in respect of an intentionally caused injury. The Law Commission’s report included a discussion of the particular limitation period issues associated with claims by victims of childhood sexual abuse.
In July 2002, the then Labour Government announced its acceptance, in principle, of the Law Commission's recommendations, subject to further consideration of several issues, and stated that it would legislate when a suitable opportunity arose. However, in November 2009, the Government announced that it no longer intended to reform the law in this area, partly because the courts had already remedied the most serious problems.
Individuals suing in the civil courts for damages for personal injuries generally have three years from the date of the injury or – as is often relevant to childhood abuse – their sixteenth birthday, in which to bring a court action. The Scottish Parliament is currently considering a Bill which would remove the limitation period for some claims for damages in respect of personal injuries resulting from childhood abuse.
Commons Briefing papers SN04209
Author: Catherine Fairbairn