Court/Judicial body: House of Lords
Citation:  UKHL 6
Date: 30 January 2008
Instrument(s) cited: The Limitation Act 1980
Background: Six survivors of sexual abuse attempted to claim damages for abuse that had occurred several years before they initiated court proceedings. The victims included a woman who sought to sue the man convicted for attempting to rape her, and several adults who suffered sexual abuse as children while in state schools, a religious institution and a detention centre. The cases were dismissed by lower courts because too much time had passed since the date the harm occurred, according to the limitation periods set by the Limitation Act 1980. The law distinguished between deliberate personal injury, which allows for claims up to six years after the harm has occurred, and personal injury resulting from nuisance, negligence or breach of duty, which allows for claims up to three years after the harm has occurred or from when the complainant first gained knowledge that the injury was significant. Courts also have the discretion to hear claims against personal injury resulting from nuisance, negligence or breach of duty where more than three years have passed. In a previous decision by the House of Lords, the UK’s highest court, a complainant sought damages for sexual abuse she had suffered as a child. The House of Lords found that the sexual abuse she suffered was a deliberate personal injury, but because more than six years had passed by the time she brought her claim, her case was dismissed. This set a precedent which the lower courts followed when dismissing the claims for sexual abuse and assault in the present case. The complainants appealed against those decisions.
Issue and resolution: Limitation periods and sexual abuse. The same limitation must apply to all claims for damages for personal injury but the Court has discretion to hear claims brought after this time period where “it is equitable to do so”.
Court reasoning: The court criticised the distinction made between deliberate personal injury and personal injury caused by negligence because it meant that the court could only use its discretion to hear late claims from victims of sexual abuse resulting from negligence or breach of duty, but could not do the same for victims of intentional sexual assault. The court was particularly concerned that the law could deny a remedy to victims of child sexual abuse. Taking into account that perpetrators of child sexual abuse are often in a position of authority and trust that enables them to prevent victims from coming forward, the court sought to remove barriers to accessing remedies faced by victims where the time limitation had passed. The court addressed this by implementing the same time limitation for personal injuries, holding that all claims seeking damages for negligent and deliberate personal injury will be subject to the same statutory limitation period, i.e. three years from the later date of when the injury occurred or when the complainant first had knowledge that the injury was significant. If more than three years have passed, the courts have discretion to hear cases where it would be equitable to do so. The court explained that the date at which the complainant becomes aware of the injury is a matter of fact and is not determined by taking into account personal characteristics of the complainant or any psychological impacts of the abuse which may have caused the complainant to be in denial. The court clarified that the psychological state of the victim may be considered when exercising discretion to extend the time period beyond the three years. This allows victims of sexual abuse more time to bring a claim for damages. The court allowed the appeals.
Notes: The case is considered to be a landmark ruling, allowing for victims of child abuse to make a claim for damages several years after the abuse occurred. For more information on the issue of child sexual abuse and religious institutions, including a selection of case law, please see CRIN’s campaign ‘End sexual violence in religious institutions’.
Link to full judgement: http://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2008/6.html