01 February, 2008
The House of Lords delivered a land mark judgement which ruled that sexual abuse claims are not subject to a rigid 6 year limitation period. Instead, such cases are subject to the usual 3 year limitation period for personal injury claims, which can be overridden at the Court's discretion.
The judgement was given in 5 related appeal cases. The legal issue was whether cases of sexual assault fell within the special regime for personal injury claims under the Limitation Act 1980 with the extendable 3 year limitation period. Whilst sexual assault can clearly cause personal injury, the Limitation Act provides that the special regime applies to claims for personal injury based on negligence, nuisance or breach of duty. The House of Lords had previously ruled in the 1993 case of Stubbings v Webb that a claim for intentional trespass to the person, such as sexual assault, is not a claim based on negligence, nuisance or breach of duty.
As a consequence of the Stubbings decision, sexual assault claims were therefore subject to the general 6 year limitation period so that if proceedings were not issued within 6 years of the abuse, or within 6 years of an abused child becoming 18, no claim could be brought. Once 6 years had expired, the only remedy for a claimant who had not already commenced proceedings against the perpetrator was to bring a negligence claim against someone responsible for the abuser, eg the employer, alleging systematic negligence.
The House of Lords overturned their decision in Stubbings ruling that intentional trespass and therefore sexual assault fell within the special regime, so that the usual 3 year limitation period applied which could be excluded. The House of Lords also gave guidance on the matters a Court should take into account when deciding whether to override the 3 year period in sexual abuse cases.
This decision is a cause for concern for organisations such as Local Authorities who operate care homes or schools. Coupled with the House of Lords decision in Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd 2002 which held that sexual abuse was not necessarily outside the scope of an employment, it is now possible for a Claimant to sue an employer vicariously for sexual abuse by its employee which may have been committed many years ago if a court decides to exclude the 3 year limitation period.