Understanding the Statute of Limitations on Civil Proceedings

 When an event occurs causing harm to you or somebody that you care about, it is natural to want to seek assistance to help remedy the situation. And it is certainly not unusual for there to be a delay between the shock of an event, and the time when you feel ready to get help. It is important to understand however that there are rules that govern what is considered to be a reasonable time before action must be taken by the potential plaintiff and her/his negligence lawyers. In the case of NSW, the key Act governing the limitations that are placed upon the bringing of an action is the Limitation Act 1969 (NSW).

The purpose of a statute of limitations

There are a number of practical reasons for limiting the delay that can reasonably occur before a plaintiff takes action for an alleged wrong. Firstly, evidence can and does deteriorate or disappear with the passage of time, and it can become impossible to fairly adjudicate a matter in such circumstances. Secondly, an unreasonable burden can fall upon any defendant if they are informed of the action many years after the alleged event. As his Honour Justice McHugh notes in Taylor, after a time, people should be able to arrange affairs and utilise their resources without concern of a potential action. With the ever-growing emphasis on efficiency and effective case management, the overall functioning of civil proceedings is enhanced when parties and their negligence lawyers are ‘on the case’ sooner rather than later.

Key provisions and legal issues

As well as the Limitation Act 1969 there are other sources of limitation found throughout the civil law, dependent upon the cause of action. The cause of action simply refers to the point at which all of the relevant facts occurred or accrued. It is a vital moment in time, as it signifies when the limitations period has commenced. In NSW, as in many jurisdictions, various changes by the legislature since the 1990s have led to a relatively complex system for determining the correct limitation period for each cause of action. At present in NSW, the limitation period for certain injurious causes of action is either three years from the time of ‘discoverability’ or 12 years from the date of the relevant act or omission (s50C) – whichever is the shorter.

Acting in time

It is understandable that when an unfortunate set of facts accrues, we can take some time to recover our equilibrium. We might at first simply need to digest the discomfort and loss that can arise after an object or person substantially lets us down. There is often hope that a situation may improve and that you will be able to ‘get back on your feet’. We may well have placed our trust in the wrong organisation or professional person, or been caught up in a difficult position that we just couldn’t have imagined. While it is certainly important to catch our breath and regroup at such times, it is crucial to bear in mind the statute of limitations operating in civil litigation. Know the time boundaries set out for your action, and a well-planned map of the future can then be crafted.