Justice requires that claims are dealt with promptly.
Jurisprudentially, justice delayed is justice denied. Practically it is very difficult to try cases long after the relevant events, when documents have been lost or destroyed, witnesses have forgotten or emigrated, or both.
For this reason, the Limitation Act 1980 imposes a statutory time bar on claims.
But there is no single limitation period applicable to all claims. Instead the Act has spawned, hydra-like, numerous different limitation periods, depending on the nature of the claim. Claims for personal injury must be started within three years of the accident. Claims for breach of contract have a six-year limitation period, unless the contract was executed as a deed, in which case the limitation period is extended to 12 years. Claims in negligence are time barred after six years.
Another complexity is when time starts to run. The clock starts ticking for claims in contract from the date of breach. In actions for negligence, however, it is the date of damage. Professional appointments potentially involve both a contract and a duty of care. The breach of contract, for example the design of a defective foundation, may be committed long before any consequential structural damage is caused. The designer can breathe easy six years after practical completion so far as any claims in contract are concerned, but may remain on the hook in negligence.
A statutory 15-year longstop was therefore imposed, but nevertheless the unsuspecting designer may still be hauled out of retirement to face the consequences of a design they had long forgotten they ever produced.
Another tendril of the limitation conundrum was considered recently in Aer Lingus v Gildacroft Ltd & Sentinel Ltd (Judgement 17.01.06).
William Smith was badly injured while working for Aer Lingus when his hand was trapped in a document lift installed by the defendants.
Aer Lingus was judged to be liable in 2000 and his claim was compromised in 2003 when they consented to a judgement of £490,000. Aer Lingus then commenced proceedings against the defendant, claiming a statutory contribution towards these losses. The manyheaded Limitation Act stipulates that for contribution claims the limitation period is two years from the date of judgement.
But the question then arose - which judgement? Aer Lingus' proceedings were brought within two years of the money judgement, but were well out of time for the liability judgement.
The judgement of the Court of Appeal demonstrates quite what a complex beast the Limitation Act is, particularly when it is placed in the statutory labyrinth that is the Civil Liability (Contribution) Act 1978.
Waiting for quantum to be decided causes further delay.
But until quantum was decided Aer Lingus had no claim to pass on. The statute was silent on the point, which had not been before the courts before.
Despite these difficulties the court picked its way through the maze and concluded that the quantum judgement prevailed and Aer Lingus' claim was in time.