Almost every kind of legal claim is subject to a time limit, often referred to as limitation periods. Each state and territory have laws dealing with limitation periods. Limitation periods confirm the amount of time a person has to file court proceedings for a civil cause of action.
What is a cause of action and why does it matter?
In essence, a cause of action arises whenever the circumstances allow someone to bring an action against another person. Different causes of action have different limitation periods, so it is important to understand the relevant cause(s) of action which apply to you.
What are the limitation periods for causes of action in the ACT?
Most claims relating to damages for financial loss, except those for personal injuries, must be commenced in the court within six years of the date when the cause of action arose.
Exceptions to the general rule
Not all claims follow this rule, however, as the cause of action can be different depending on the facts of the case or the type of claim that is being made. Some examples of claims that are exceptions to the general rule are:
1. Personal injury
In personal injury claims, the limitation period is usually only three years, although there are some very limited circumstances where there may be extensions. In addition to this, other legislation in the ACT requires written notice of the claim to be given by the claimant to the other party at an earlier stage, either within nine months of the injury, or four months of instructing a lawyer. Failure to give such notification may prevent legal proceedings from being commenced at all.
2. Incident-specific limitation periods
In some circumstances, the period can be specific to the type of incident. One example of this is where an injury occurs because of, or arising out of, the use of an aircraft. The Civil Aviation (Carriers Liability) Act 1959 provides that there is only a two-year period in which to bring a claim. Motor accident claims are another example in the ACT and have a five-year limitation period.
3. Suspended limitation periods
In some circumstances a limitation period may be suspended. Examples include when the claimant is under some form of legal disability such as suffering mental incapacity, or during the period when the claimant is under 18 years of age. Furthermore, in a very limited number of cases an application can be made to extend the time period. In relation to personal injury matters in the ACT, this can only occur in work-related injury claims.
When does the limitation period start?
This timing depends on the type of claim. A cause of action in relation to negligence, or a breach of duty of care, would only accrue when there was identifiable damage or loss arising from the alleged breach of duty of care. In some circumstances, for example where the injury slowly develops over time or is initially undetected, the damage and losses may not become apparent until many years after the actual breach of duty of care occurred. One such example is an asbestos-related lung condition that may take many years to detect, even though the negligent exposure to the asbestos has already taken place or took place some time ago. In cases such as these, the limitation period starts when there is evidence that the injury has been detected.
Do limitation periods apply to all causes of action?
In some very restricted situations the limitation period may be completely removed. One example of this is a recent amendment to the ACT limitation law where the limitation period for victims of sexual abuse was completely removed. This means that those who have been the subject of historic abuse are now able to commence legal proceedings, regardless of how long ago the abuse was committed.
How can we help?
The take-home message here is that when time limits apply – which is the case with almost all claims − it is essential that you seek legal advice, at least about the period during which you have to either give notice of a claim or commence court proceedings. Time can be crucial!
Fortunately, the team at Snedden Hall & Gallop have extensive experience dealing with a wide range of legal disputes and can help if you are concerned about your legal rights.