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 you:
What is a limitation period?
A 'limitation period' is a type of time limit. It refers to the amount of time you have got in which to start a civil claim.
New rules for personal injury claims caused by road traffic accidents that occured on or after May 31st 2021 come into force from May 31st 2021. Please bear with us while we ensure this guide is correct for those cases. It is correct for all other types of case.
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 our Suing in the civil court – an overview of the process to get an overview of what a typical case might look like.
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 court proceedings.
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 issue any court proceedings by the sixth anniversary of the breach.
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 the contract committed them to doing. 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’t look after it herself anymore because 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. 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.
If there has been fraud or deliberate concealment 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 issue 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. It recently got worse, and he developed a cough. He went to his GP who took a work history, and after 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 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 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.
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 basic three year (personal injury) and six-year time limits (contract and non-personal injury negligence) are called ‘the primary limitation period’. If you are within that, you are definitely in time to start your claim. If you are outside the primary limitation period but may come within one of the exceptions, you may need to get legal advice as soon as possible before deciding whether it is worth starting a 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. Otherwise your application is what lawyers call ‘out of time’.
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. So, there are good practical reasons for starting your claim, or at least starting to prepare your claim, well within the limitation period.
Before you issue your claim, the court expects you to have gone through various processes with your opponent. These include communicating and exchanging information with them as well as negotiating in an effort to agree the result without going to court. These processes are called pre-action conduct and pre-action protocols (see Before you sue - things you need to know about court procedure). If you haven’t allowed enough time to work at trying to settle your claim before issuing proceedings, you are likely to find the court imposes sanctions on you. You will often need to file evidence at the same time you start your claim and depending on the type of claim, it can take a long time to get it. For example, if you have a personal injury claim, you will need to allow many months to get a medical report.
Once your claim has started, there is an automatic court timetable to follow. For many steps you might only have two or four weeks in which to carry out the task. If you aren’t well prepared before you issue proceedings, you may find it very difficult to manage to do this.
There may come a time when you need to ask the court for more time to carry out some step or other. You are far more likely to get their permission if you have acted efficiently and in good time up till now, rather than always at the last minute.
Evidence can disappear for all sorts of reasons:
For more information on the evidence see Evidence needed to sue someone.
It can be very difficult to identify the correct defendant (see guide X). If you have left it close to the deadline to issue, you may find out after you have run out of time, in particular after the defendant has filed their defence, that you have got the wrong defendant, or that it would have been a good idea to include a second defendant. You will now be out of time to change to the correct defendant, or to add a second defendant.
They are far more likely to take you seriously if you start your case in good time and in an organised way.
The limitation period for starting your case still applies even if you are trying to resolve the dispute outside the court process, for example, by making a complaint or going to mediation. If you miss the deadline, you will lose your right to claim and as a result you will also lose any negotiating advantage you had because you are no longer a threat to the other side.
‘Serving the claim’ is the legal phrase that refers to your claim actually being sent and delivered to the defendant once it has been issued by the court. You are expected to put the defendant’s address in the claim forms you fill out, and the court will then post them to the defendant.
Very important time limit!
You have four months for serving your claim on the defendant after it has been issued, that is for sending it to the defendant or getting it sent by the court so that they receive it.
If there are complications, for example, you have left it so late that you have to issue your claim at the last minute without tracing the defendant’s address and you then have to serve the claim yourself, you will need to work very fast to make sure the defendant receives the claim in time. There are almost no circumstances in which the court will extend the four-month time limit for service. This means that if you have issued proceedings without finding the defendant’s address, and then can’t serve the defendant within four months, your case will lapse (fail). There are different time limits if the defendant is outside England and Wales.
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.
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 was produced by Law for Life's Advicenow project.