Lords Overturn Controversial Limitation Decisions - Time Limits Restored in Professional Negligence Claims


To the relief of professional services firms (and their insurers), the House of Lords has overturned recent decisions on section 32 of the Limitation Act 1980. The effect of those decisions had been that claims for negligence could be brought long after the time when it had previously been thought the limitation period had expired.

In a widely anticipated decision, the House of Lords gave judgment on 25th April 2002 in an appeal from the Court of Appeal in Cave v. Robinson Jarvis & Rolf [2002] 1 WLR 581 which now establishes the proper interpretation of Section 32 of the Limitation Act 1980. In effect, the House of Lords has found that the interpretation of Section 32 in an earlier Court of Appeal decision (Brocklesby v. Armitage & Guest [2001] 1 All ER 172) was wrong, and that the law is as it had been understood to be before Brocklesby.

As Lord Millett noted in his judgment, the effect of the reasoning of the Court of Appeal judgment in Brocklesby was that a professional subject to a claim for negligent advice would never have a limitation defence, even where he denied that the advice was negligent, or even wrong. Only once he had shown on the merits that the advice was not negligent could he have asserted a limitation defence. It had always previously been considered that the limitation period would only be extended where facts relevant to the claimant's right of action had been deliberately concealed, or where the defendant had deliberately committed a breach of duty in circumstances in which it was unlikely to be discovered for some time.

Section 32 of the Limitation Act 1980

Section 32(1)(b) of the Limitation Act 1980 postpones the commencement of the limitation period where "any fact relevant to the plaintiff's right of action has been deliberately concealed from him by the defendant". If so, the period of limitation does not begin to run until the claimant discovers the concealment or could with reasonable diligence have discovered it. Further, section 32(2) of the Limitation Act 1980 provides "for the purposes of sub-section (1) above, deliberate commission of a breach of duty in circumstances in which it is unlikely to be discovered for some time amounts to deliberate concealment of the facts involved in that breach of duty".

It had always been considered that, although differently worded, this preserved the broad effect of section 26 of the Limitation Act 1939, so that "the start of the limitation period is postponed...

To continue reading