In this short guide, we answer a number of frequently asked questions about the time limits that apply to professional negligence claims.
Why are there time limits for professional negligence claims?
Time limits for pursuing civil claims have existed for many hundreds of years and are applied as a matter of public policy. In the context of professional negligence claims, they afford professionals and those that insure them a degree of certainty as to the duration of their financial exposure to claims. This in turn can have certain practical advantages, such as enabling the professional to determine how long to store client files or maintain professional indemnity insurance cover.
For those professionals required to respond to claims, and for the courts required to adjudicate on them, sensible time limits can also help to ensure the fair trial of claims. This is achieved by a reduction in the frequency of stale claims, where the quality of the available evidence has substantially diminished over time.
Do the time limits vary according to the type of professional?
No. It does not matter whether the claim is against a solicitor, an accountant or any other type of professional. Instead, the time limit will generally be governed by the type of claim (known as the cause of action) being pursued.
Where do these time limits come from?
Most time limits are prescribed by the Limitation Act 1980. However, it is possible to extend or reduce certain time limits by agreement. This is most common in commercial contracts, whose terms can also be worth considering when determining the time limits applicable to any claim.
What are the time limits for professional negligence claims?
The most commonly encountered provisions and time limits found in the Limitation Act 1980 are:
Section 2: This provides that a claim in tort (such as a claim for professional negligence) must be brought within 6 years of the date upon which damage occurs.
Section 5: This provides that a claim for breach of a simple contract (such as the contract/retainer commonly entered into by a professional and their client) must be brought within 6 years of the date of the breach.
Section 14A: This provides that where a claimant does not have knowledge of a financial loss at the time it is suffered, a claim for negligence (which includes a claim for professional negligence) must be brought within 6 years of the date upon which the financial loss occurs or within 3 years of the earliest date upon which the claimant has both the knowledge required for bringing a claim and the right to bring a claim, whichever is later.
Section 14B: This provides that a claim for negligence (which, again, includes a claim for professional negligence) cannot be brought more than 15 years after the date on which the act or omission giving rise to it occurred, even if the time limit prescribed by section 14A has not expired.
Therefore, where you have grounds for pursuing a professional negligence claim you will generally have 6 years from the date of wrongdoing or loss, but you may have 3 years from the date of discovery, if later, in which to bring any claim, subject to a long stop of 15 years.
What do I need to do to comply with the time limits?
Before the time limit for your claim expires and to stop time running you (on someone acting on your behalf) must deliver a valid Claim Form to the appropriate court, together with the appropriate court issue fee.
What happens if I don’t comply with the time limits?
If you fail to comply with the prescribed time limit, you will not be able to recover damages in relation to that element of your claim to which the limit applies, regardless of the merits.
In some instances, limitation can provide a complete defence to a professional negligence claim.
Can these time limits be varied?
Yes. It is possible to vary or postpone time limits by agreement. Frequently, the latter is done in the form of a Standstill Agreement. However, because of the serious consequences of failing to comply with the time limits for bringing a claim, considerable care should be exercised when agreeing to do so.
The above time limits can also be affected by conduct. Under section 32 of the Limitation Act 1980 they may be postponed where the claim is based on the fraud of the professional or where any fact relevant to your right of action has been deliberately concealed from you by the professional.
Where can I find more detailed information?
A more detailed account of the primary limitation periods (sections 2 and 5 of the Limitation Act 1980) that apply to professional negligence claims and the dangers associated with them can be accessed here.
A more detailed account of the secondary limitation period (section 14A of the Limitation Act 1980) that applies to professional negligence claims and the dangers associated with it can be accessed here.
Finally, a copy of the Limitation Act 1980 itself can be accessed here.
What should I do if I think I have a claim?
If you consider that you may have grounds for pursuing a professional negligence claim, you should seek legal advice from a specialist solicitor without delay.
In practice, calculating the time limits for a claim can be a complicated process and it is very possible that the time limit for pursuing any claim that you have will expire much sooner than you realise. By delaying, you run the serious risk that your right to pursue any claim could be inadvertently lost.
Acting promptly can have other advantages too. In some cases, it can ensure the preservation of important evidence that might otherwise be routinely destroyed, or simply lost. In other cases, it might ensure that your own recollection of particular events, as well as those of other witnesses, can be captured in as much detail as possible, before memories inevitably fade.
Where it is possible to resolve your claim consensually, acting swiftly may also avoid the need to incur the cost of issuing court proceedings which can, depending on the value of your claim, be considerable.
If you would like to arrange an initial consultation with us, free of charge or commitment, please do not hesitate to contact us on 0800 195 4983 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.