We try to explain any legal language as we go along, but there is also a ‘What does it mean?’ section at the end.
This is just one of our resources about sorting out a dispute and going to a civil court. The rest of the series can be found on our Going to a civil court page.
This guide is for you if:
What is a limitation period?
A ‘limitation period’ is a time limit. It refers to the amount of time you have to start a civil claim.
This guide is also for people supporting litigants in person, for example Support Through Court volunteers, CAB volunteers, housing support workers, advice workers and court staff, as well as relatives and friends.
This guide does not cover:
Top tip – Have a look at An overview of the process of taking a claim in the civil court to get an overview of what a typical case might look like and How to take a claim in the civil court - at a glance .
If you have not yet read Should I sue someone? you should do that before making any kind of application.
We try to explain any legal language as we go along, but there is also a ‘What does it mean?’ section at the end.
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The law says that you only have a set amount of time in which you can start a civil claim. The law calls this the ‘limitation period’. Courts are very strict about this deadline so it is important to know how much time you have got to start your claim.
There are different limitation periods for different types of cases, but for the cases we look at in this guide the limitation period will be either three or six years.
The limitation period for a contract claim is six years from the date of the breach of contract. This means that you must start any court proceedings by the sixth anniversary of the event that broke the contract.
Sofia works as a self-employed photographer. A few years ago, she was going through a bad patch and her accounts got in a muddle. She recently got herself together and discovered she had quite a few unpaid invoices between four and eight years old. She is still in time to claim for the ones under six years old, but not for the ones over six years old.
The ‘date of the breach of contract’ will be the date when part or all of the contract was broken because one of the parties to it failed or refused to do something that they committed to doing under the contract. This date may or may not be the same as the date when you first realise that there has been a breach of contract, perhaps because the damage only happens later.
Doris loves her garden but can no longer look after it herself as her health is poor. She has a gardener who comes once a week for an hour to mow her small lawn and tidy up the flower bed and for this she pays him £40 a month. Unfortunately, she’s been in hospital for last four months. When she gets home, she finds that her garden is completely overgrown and that her gardener stopped doing the gardening three months ago even though she’d gone on paying him.
The ‘date of the breach of contract’ is the date when the gardener stopped gardening, not the date when Doris came out of hospital to discover her overgrown garden.
It is possible for a contract to change and shorten the limitation period for breach of contract claims brought under that contract. However the rules around this are complex. If you think that the contract under which you’re trying to bring a claim specifies a shorter limitation period, you need to get proper legal advice to assess the effectiveness of that term of the contract.
If you don’t have mental capacity (or you have a disability which would stop you from starting your claim) at the time at which the breach occurred (for example if you were sectioned under the Mental Health Act, or if you have dementia) time only starts once or if you have mental capacity again. So, if you regain your mental capacity you have six years from that point in which to start your claim. It is very important to note that if you gain capacity at any point following the breach of contract the limitation clock starts and cannot later be stopped, even if you lose capacity again.
If there has been fraud or deliberate concealment (hiding of the facts) so that you discover the breach after 6 years have passed, you may have more time, but you would need to get proper legal advice first.
The limitation period for a personal injury claim is three years from the date of the injury. This means that you must start any court proceedings by the third anniversary of your accident.
In some circumstances the limitation period is longer. So, if you only become aware of an injury much later then you have three years from the date you discovered, or could reasonably have discovered, the cause of your injury.
Alf retired when he was 65, and is now 72. For the last 2 or 3 years he has suffered shortness of breath, which he put down to age, and being overweight and not doing enough exercise. Alf retired when he was 65, and is now 72. For the last 2 or 3 years he has suffered shortness of breath, which he put down to age, and being overweight and sedentary. Alf’s shortness of breath recently got worse and he developed a cough and so he visited his GP. Alf’s GP took a work history and after some tests told Alf that he has a lung disease caused by the dust from working in a pottery all his adult life. The GP also told him that it can take up to 15 years for symptoms to emerge. Although it is over 7 years since Alf was exposed to the dust, he is in time to claim as he has only just found out about it.
If you are injured under the age of 18, you have until your 21st birthday to start court proceedings. (If you start a case when you are under 18, your parents or other adults have to bring proceedings on your behalf.)
Siv and Naz's story
Two years ago, Siv and his daughter Naz, who was 14 at the time, were passengers when they were in a car accident which was the driver’s fault. They both suffered fractures and took quite a while to recover. They didn’t start legal action at the time, as Naz was upset and her parents thought starting a claim would make it worse for her. Now Naz is in the middle of her GCSEs. As a family, they decide that Siv will have to start his claim, because it is getting fairly close to the end of limitation period. Naz will leave hers and make her own decision about what she wants to do when she is 17 or 18. At that point she will still have three or four years in which to start her case, and she will be able to use a lot of Siv’s evidence about the accident in her own case.
If you don’t have mental capacity (or you have a disability which would stop you from starting your claim) at the time you are injured, for example if you were sectioned under the Mental Health Act, or if you have dementia, time only starts to run once or if you have mental capacity again. So, if you regain your mental capacity, you have three years from that point in which to start your claim.
If you don’t have mental capacity at the time the problem occurs – for example, because you are sectioned under the Mental Health Act, or you have severe dementia, then time doesn’t start to run until or if you recover. So you have six years from the point you regain your mental capacity in which to start your claim. It is very important to note that if you gain capacity at any point following the negligent act (or the date at which you knew about it), the limitation clock starts and cannot be stopped later, even if you lose capacity again.
Eight years ago, Joe decided to have his bath replaced by a walk-in shower and fully tiled bathroom. A local firm did the work. Last week about ten tiles fell off the shower wall. Fortunately, no-one was hurt. Joe called in a plumber, who showed him that the water pipes for the shower had been incorrectly fitted, and there had been a slow leak behind the tiling which meant the whole wall needed replacing. Although the work was over six years ago, Joe will be in time to claim for negligence as he could not reasonably have discovered the problem earlier.
The primary limitation periods are as follows:
1. Claims for breach of contract or negligence which aren’t for personal injury - 6 years from the date of the breach or the date of knowledge of the negligent act.
2. Claims for personal injury - 3 years from the date of injury or the date of knowledge of the injury or cause of action which caused the injury, whichever is later.
If your claim falls within the primary limitation period then you will definitely be in time to start your claim.
It is important to bear in mind any of the exceptions to the limitation periods outlined above, however if you believe these apply to you then you should seek legal advice as soon as possible before deciding whether or not it’s worth starting your claim.
In most cases you only get one chance to start court proceedings. If you miss the deadline, your case will almost certainly not get off the ground. In very limited circumstances it might be possible to extend the deadline. If you are in this position, don’t delay, get legal advice.
When you find out what the deadline is for your case, you may think it gives you plenty of time to prepare and start the court proceedings. But you may be surprised at how much work is involved to get your case ready in time. It is therefore really important to start to prepare your claim well within the limitation period. For example
Breach of contract – a failure or refusal to carry out all or part of an agreed legal obligation, typically a failure to provide or pay for goods or services.
File – to submit or place a legal document or application in the court records. Also to upload a document to the online court.
Civil claim – a non-criminal legal case against an individual or a company for compensation and/or to assert a particular legal right.
Limitation period - a type of time limit. It refers to the amount of time you have got in which to start a civil claim.
Litigant in person – a person bringing or defending a claim without a solicitor or barrister.
Out of time - when you miss the deadline for starting court proceedings.
Personal injury – when you have suffered the sort of harm which leaves you with a physical or mental injury.
Pre action protocol - an official procedure explaining what you have to do before court proceedings start in some sorts of cases.
Primary limitation period – this refers to the basic three year (personal injury) and six-year time limits (contract and non-personal injury negligence).
Sanctions – the punitive action the court takes if a party fails to comply with a rule or take a step in the proceedings that they’ve been ordered to take.
Serving the claim – formal delivery of your claim to the defendant once it has been issued by the court.
Strike out – if the court strikes out your case it means that you can’t carry on with it. It is ‘game over’. Sometimes the court might just strike out part of your case. In this situation you can only carry on with the bit that’s left.
Time limit - a phrase you might hear as an alternative to ‘limitation period’. For example, ‘Are you within the time limit?’ Or ‘Are you out of time?’ It is also used to refer to the amount of time the court allows you to do something. For example, a court might ask you to produce photographs as evidence, and set a ‘time limit’ for doing this. Any time limits set by the court have to be taken very seriously. If you don’t follow them the court is likely to ‘strike out’ (end) your case. Or you could find that the other side applies to the court to strike out your case if you haven’t done what the court has ordered you to do in the time allowed.
The information in this guide applies to England and Wales only. The law may be different if you live in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The law is complicated. We have simplified things in this guide. Please don’t rely on this guide as a complete statement of the law. We recommend you try and get advice from the sources we have suggested.
The cases we refer to are not always real but show a typical situation. We have included them to help you think about how to deal with your own situation.
This guide has been updated in 2022 thanks to funding from the Litigant in Person Support Strategy.