The House of Lords has overturned its own previous decision in the case of Stubbings v Webb [1993] AC 498 in which the House had unanimously decided that s11 of the Limitation Act 1980 did not apply to acts of deliberate assault (including acts of indecent assault), and allowed the appeals in the cases of A v Hoare, X and Another v Wandsworth London Borough Council, C v Middlesborough Council, H v Suffolk County Council, Young v Catholic Care (Diocese of Leeds) and Another.

All the appeals raised questions as to whether claims for sexual assaults and abuse were barred by the Limitation Act 1980 (“the Act”). The main issue was whether s2 (6 year limitation period) or s11 (3 year limitation period extendable at the court’s discretion under s33) of the Act applied. In all cases, proceedings were issued more than 6 years after the primary limitation period and were statue-barred.

The lead claim of Mrs A v Hoare concerned a retired teacher who brought a claim against her attacker 19 years after the attack occurred. The Defendant Mr Hoare, won £7 million on the lottery in 2004 whilst serving a custodial sentence. Previously Mr Hoare had not been worth suing. Upon learning of these circumstances, Mrs A brought a claim against Mr Hoare but was unsuccessful as her claim was made outside the limitation period.

Following the landmark decision on 30.1.2008, Mrs A and others in similar situations may have an opportunity to pursue claims for damages many years after their abuse.

Background

Under s2 of the Limitation Act 1980 (“the Act”) the limitation period for bringing an action in contract or tort is 6 years. The court has no discretion to extend the limitation period.

In actions for damages for negligence, nuisance or breach of duty where the damages are in respect of personal injuries, under s11 of the Act the limitation period is 3 years from the date on which the cause of action arose or the date of knowledge (if later) as defined in s14. Where a claim falls under s11, s33 gives the court a discretion, to extend the limitation period when it appears equitable to do so.

In Stubbings, the House of Lords held that s11 was not applicable to cases of deliberate assault and an action for an intentional trespass to the person is not an action for negligence, nuisance or breach of duty. Such cases therefore fell under s2 and s33 did not apply.

Appeals

In the above cases the Claimants argued either that the date of knowledge was less than 3 years before the commencement of proceedings or that the court should exercise its discretion under s33 and disapply the primary limitation period.

In all cases the Lords considered it right to depart from Stubbings, stating that breach of duty in s11 must be construed broadly to include trespass to the person, so allowing the s33 discretion to be exercised if appropriate. Letang v Cooper [1965] 1 QB 232 has been reaffirmed.

All five cases have been sent back to the High Court to be reconsidered in light of this ruling.

On a separate issue, the case of Young concerned construction of s14 of the Act and date of knowledge. Mr Young had argued that he was in denial about his psychological injuries and had blocked out his memory and did not know he had suffered a significant injury at the time. The House of Lords held that the s14 test is an impersonal standard “not whether the claimant himself would have considered the injury sufficiently serious to justify proceedings but whether he would ‘reasonably’ have done so.” You should ask what the Claimant knew about the injury suffered, add any knowledge imputed to him under s14(3) and then ask whether a reasonable person with that knowledge would have considered the injury sufficiently serious to justify starting proceedings for damages. The House of Lords concluded that Mr Young’s date of knowledge was when the abuse actually occurred. Although he lost on this point, he does have an opportunity to persuade the court to exercise its discretion under s33 and disapply the limitation period when the case is remitted back to the High Court.

What does ruling this mean?

The unaminous ruling means that one apparent anomaly has been removed and victims of abuse can potentially bring claims for compensation many years after the event occurred, providing that the court considers that it is still possible to have a fair trial.

Defendants are usually not worth pursing as they rarely have the means to satisfy a Judgment. However, since the case of Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd [2002] 1 AC 215, it has been possible to bring claims against an employer if there was a sufficiently close connection between the work of the employee and acts of abuse such that the employer could be held vicariously liable for the acts of the employee.

Local authorities, schools, religious organisations, prisons and detention centres and their insurers should therefore be alert to new claims coming to light in the wake of this Judgment.