The sands of time (or prescription)

Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Prescription: terror of the legal profession

When I discuss prescription with students for the first time, I usually can’t resist making the (admittedly) lame observation that it has nothing to do with going to see your General Practitioner for a medical appointment. Though, these last few days, I have been talking a lot about the Coronavirus or COVID-19 and the legal implications of this outbreak for sickness absence from work and eligibility for sick pay.

No, prescription has nothing to do with medicine and is a concept that all lawyers should be familiar with – indeed live in terror of perhaps?

I well remember one developer of legal software informing me that his case management system for personal injury claims had a feature which regularly provided a countdown towards the last possible date when a prospective claim must be submitted to the appropriate court with jurisdiction to hear the matter (so no excuses then?).

Lawyers who fall foul of prescription may well be opening a can of worms for themselves because the clients will almost certainly attempt to sue them for professional negligence.

If the principle of prescription is being deployed by the opposing side in a legal action, you (and your client’s case) may be in serious trouble.

In what way?

Essentially, you have not submitted the claim or complied with court procedures (e.g. deadlines for submission of documents/evidence) within the required time allowance.

In terms of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973, most delictual (tort) claims must be brought within five years of damage to property. In terms of contractual actions, a pursuer or a claimant who is contemplating legal proceedings in Scotland will usually have 5 years from the effective date of the breach to submit a claim (the quinquennium).

On the other hand, personal injury claims must usually be lodged within three years of the date of the incident which caused injury (the triennium).

In England, the prescription period for contractual claims is 6 years and for most other claims the period is 3 years.

Time limits for submission of claims will be strictly adhered to – unless the Scottish courts deem it just and equitable to extend them.

Sometimes, certain claims – principally Employment Tribunal claims – must be submitted by the claimant in a very short space of time. Normally, for most employment claims (including discrimination claims), the claimant must submit an ET1 application to the Employment Tribunal within 3 months minus 1 day of the act that she is complaining about. If the dismissal from employment took place on 5 March, a claim for unfair dismissal must be submitted by 4 June – at the very latest – otherwise it will be time barred. Admittedly, for equal pay claims, longer time limits apply i.e. 6 months minus 1 day from the discriminatory act complained about.

Prescription is an extremely powerful weapon that can be used by an opposing lawyer to knock out another person’s claim. If prescription is relevant, then the merits of the case will simply not be discussed. The claim is time-barred and that is usually that (see the UK Supreme Court’s decisions in David T Morrison & Co Limited v ICL Plastics [2014] UKSC 48 and Gordon v Campbell Riddell Breeze Paterson LLP (Scotland) [2017] UKSC 75).

Out of time!

In two fairly recent cases before the Outer House of the Court of Session, the issue of prescription was successfully argued by the defenders’ legal teams.

In the first case – Brian Alexander Gracie v Edinburgh City Council [2019] CSOH 6 – an incident which had allegedly taken place in 1965 was time barred (unsurprisingly) on the grounds of prescription. More bizarrely, Mr Gracie, the pursuer himself admitted that he had little recollection of the incident and there was scant evidence to support his assertions in any event. Gracie was alleging that, while at school in the 1960s, the teaching staff had failed in their duty of care to him by permitting him to run out from the playground on to the road where he was hit by a car. Needless to say, his claim for a staggering £650,000 in damages was swiftly dispatched by the council’s lawyers.

A link to the decision of the Outer House in the above case can be found below:

In the second case – Midlothian Council v David Anderson Keith and others [2019] CSOH 29 – the council had built a housing development on land at Gorebridge which later turned out to be be dangerous because of gas leaks seeping from old coal mines at the site. The site was later demolished and rebuilt because of the risk to human health.

It had instructed a survey prior to the build and the engineering firm which carried this out had assessed the risk from gas to be very low. Due to this assessment, gas defences (e.g. a gas membrane) were not included in the build. In 2013, levels of gas harmful to humans were detected at a site property.

The council wished to sue the firm for allegedly providing negligent advice under their contract. The claim was dismissed by reason of prescription i.e. the contractual obligations between the two parties had become extinct. It’s worth noting that the engineers never accepted liability – the clinching argument of prescription made debate about liability completely irrelevant.

The disagreement between the two sides centred around the point at which the five year prescription period began. The engineering firm argued that it began when the development was completed (June 2009); the council responded by arguing that the critical date was when the high levels of gas were detected at the site (7 September 2013).

Lord Doherty clearly relied upon the UK Supreme Court decision in Gordon v Campbell Riddell Breeze Paterson LLP (Scotland) [2017] UKSC 75. The key date from which the 5 year prescription period should run was the date of completion of the housing development. His Lordship was firmly of the view that the key event was the date when the council placed reliance on the engineering firm’s assessment that it was safe to build on the site. This reliance could be pinpointed to a period between December 2007 and June 2009 i.e. when the development was commenced and completed. The action against the engineers (who never admitted liability) was commenced on 4 September 2018 – nearly 9 years after the development had been completed. The council’s claim was, therefore, dismissed.

A link to the decision of the Outer House in the above case can be found below:

Overriding prescription?

There is, however, a provision in Section 19A of the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 which does permit a judge to override the normal rules about prescription. Claims which would normally be time barred may be permitted to proceed to a hearing under Section 19A if the judge believes that it is equitable to do so.

Such an approach was taken in the case of A v Glasgow City Council [2018] CSOH 116 which arose out of the events of the Glasgow Lorry Incident in December 2014. Relatives of the victims of this tragedy were permitted to proceed with their legal actions despite the relevant time limits having passed because it would not have been in the interests of justice to time bar the claims on a technicality.

A link to Lord Doherty’s Opinion in A v Glasgow City Council [2018] CSOH 116 can be found below:

Removal of the 3 year limitation period – historical child abuse claims

Sometimes Parliament will permit claims to proceed to court – even if they would normally be time barred or fall foul of prescription. This will be achieved by passing legislation and one recent example is the Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Bill.

Clearly, Parliament’s purpose in waiving the normal rules of prescription which are normally strictly adhered to by the Scottish courts is that it is just and equitable to do so. Put simply, the legislation is about righting an historic injustice.

On 14 March 2016, the Scottish Government published a draft Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Bill which was in response to the Consultation on the Removal of the 3 Year Limitation Period from Civil Actions for Damages for Personal Injury for In Care Survivors of Historical Child Abuse.

The draft Bill proposed to remove the triennium or 3 year time limit for cases of historical child abuse that allegedly took place after 26 September 1964.

This Bill was eventually passed by the Scottish Parliament becoming the Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Act 2017. It represents an exception to the normal rules regulating the limitation period for the submission to Scottish civil courts in relation to personal injury claims of this nature.


Time and tide wait for no one; delay is fatal; or tempus fugit (i.e.time flies) can all be applied to legal actions. If you don’t use it (i.e. your right to take court action), you lose it. This is quite sensible: it means that there is a natural cut off for legal actions and, consequently, the courts will not be swamped (well any more than they already are).

Another sensible viewpoint is that litigation should take place fairly quickly so that the evidence of litigants is fresh in the memory (the case of Brian Alexander Gracie v Edinburgh City Council [2019] CSOH 6 is an excellent illustration of this (see above).

Parties bringing claims to Scottish civil courts must be aware of the following:

  • The Triennium or 3 year period in which a claim for personal injury must be submitted; and/or
  • The Quinquennium or 5 year period in which contractual claims or delictual claims for property damage must be submitted.

Admittedly, Section 19A of the Prescription and the Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973 does allow Scottish judges to override the principle of prescription if it is just and equitable to do so.

Speaking of just and equitable grounds, the Scottish Parliament passed the Limitation (Childhood Abuse)(Scotland) Act 2017. This legislation represents an exception to the normal rules regulating the limitation period for the submission to Scottish civil courts of personal injury claims which involve historic child sex abuse allegations.

As a general rule of thumb, however, prescription remains the terror of the legal profession: get the client’s claim submitted on time or face a professional negligence claim.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 6 March 2020

Termination of contract

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

It has just been announced that the well known UK construction company Balfour Beatty has just had a contract terminated by one of its clients.

The client in question is MI6 or the UK Special Intelligence Service, the equivalent of the CIA and the employer of Britain’s best known (but fictional) spy – James Bond. The Service is based at Vauxhall Cross on the River Thames.

Termination of contract can be a pretty dry area, but mix it in with the world of secret intelligence services and you have a story that will be of interest to a potentially large audience.

Who cares?

The company’s shareholders will almost certainly care about this and a large part of the public will be keenly interested to know the facts behind this development.

What went wrong?

Balfour Beatty had been contracted to refurbish the HQ of MI6. In order to carry out the job, the company had in its possession floor plans of the building. Somehow these plans went missing – although they were later recovered – but too late the damage had been done.

Mindful of the mind boggling ramifications of this huge security breach, the UK Foreign Office, which has overall responsibility for the work of MI6, promptly removed Balfour Beatty from further involvement in the middle of the refurbishment project.

A link to the story as reported in The Financial Times can be found below:

I would assume that the Foreign Office is on pretty safe legal ground when it made the decision to terminate Balfour Beatty’s contract. The loss of highly confidential documents by the company could represent nothing less than a material breach of contract. This arises in situations where one of the parties acts in such a way that it completely undermines the contract. The breach, in other words, is so serious because it goes to the very roots of the contract.

The victim of the breach can then potentially use the remedy of rescission i.e. terminate the agreement. The remedy of damages is also available to the victim.

Rescission is actually a much more common remedy than you otherwise might think. In terms of both the Sale of Goods Act 1979 and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, a buyer may choose to terminate a contract of sale in situations where the trader supplies goods that fail to comply with, for example, the implied duty of satisfactory quality.

In employment contracts, an employer is entitled to dismiss an employee in circumstances where the individual commits an act of gross misconduct (theft, violence, gross negligence or failure to follow lawful orders). The Employment Rights Act 1996 recognises that there will be situations where the employer is entitled to terminate the contract of employment and there will be nothing unfair or wrongful about the dismissal (presuming, of course, that proper disciplinary procedures have been followed).

In the well known Scottish employment law decision of Macari v Celtic Football & Athletic Club [1999] IRLR 787 SC, a football manager had his contract terminated quite legally by his employer owing to the fact that he had repeatedly failed to follow lawful and reasonable orders. This failure by the employee to honour the terms of his contract was nothing less than a material breach of the agreement.

Conversely, an employee may choose to regard the employment contract as terminated in situations where the employer has breached the implied duty of trust and good faith. This could occur where the employee was subjected to bullying and harassment by colleagues and the employer (being aware of this) does nothing meaningful or concrete to deal with this. In the face of the employer’s indifference (or collusion), the employee could regard him/herself as constructively dismissed.

Particularly serious for the employer could be situations where the bullying or harassment are motivated by hostility towards an individual’s protected characteristic in terms of the Equality Act 2010 e.g. age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.

Back to Balfour Beatty: it looks as the company has no one to blame for this mess, but themselves. MI6 or the Foreign Office obviously felt that the loss of sensitive (Top Secret?) documents was such a serious development that there was no choice to terminate the contract with immediate effect.

Copyright – Seán J Crossan, 29 December 2019

Locking horns (Frustration of Contract Part 2)

Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

In February, one of my blogs (Frustration of Contract) dealt with the circumstances surrounding the issue of frustration as a factor which could lead to termination of a contractual agreement.

One of the stories discussed in that particular blog was the dispute between Cardiff City FC and FC Nantes in respect of the tragic death of Emiliano Sala, the Argentinian footballer who had signed for the English Premiership club.

Despite Sala’s death, the French club was till demanding a portion of the transfer fee of £15 million. This led to speculation on my part as to whether frustration of contract could be an argument put forward by Cardiff.

The plot has since thickened an, today (25 March 2019), it has been reported that Cardiff City is now claiming that the transfer deal was never legally binding. The Premiership side asserts that the proper paperwork was not completed; the French side disputes this.

So, it looks as if the two clubs are going to be locking horns in what now seems to be an inevitable legal dispute.

A link to an article on the BBC website can be found below:

saw this on the BBC News App and thought you should see it:

Emiliano Sala: Cardiff set to claim transfer deal ‘not legally binding’

Cardiff City football are set to tell Fifa the deal to buy Emiliano Sala from Nantes for £15m was not legally binding.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 25 March 2019

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Frustration of contract?

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

In Chapter 2 of Introductory Scots Law, I discuss termination of contractual agreements. One way in which a contract can come to an end – albeit in rather an abrupt or unexpected manner – will be when the agreement is said to be frustrated.

Frustration will often arise when unexpected events intervene. Since the formation of the contract, the circumstances surrounding the agreement may have changed dramatically. The contract may now be impossible to perform or the contract may have been rendered illegal by changes in the law.

Physical destruction of the subject-matter of the contract operates to frustrate the agreement (see Taylor v Caldwell (1863) EWHC QB J1 and Vitol SA v Esso Australia (1988) The Times, 1 February 1988).

Frustration as a practical issue came to mind a few months ago, when I was teaching contract law to two groups of students. Some of the more switched on members of the classes highlighted a story which had received a lot of media coverage.

This story involved the sale of a painting (Girl with Balloon) by the artist known as Banksy. In October 2018, the item was being auctioned at Sotheby’s in London. The successful bidder agreed to pay £860,000 – quite a coup  for Sotheby’s. Unfortunately, for the bidder, the artist had other ideas. The frame contained a hidden device which partially shredded the painting.

The artist made a film of the incident:

What would have been the legal position?

Would the contract have been capable of enforcement or was this an example of frustration my students wanted to know?

Banksy’s painting is a unique item i.e. it cannot be replaced with a similar item. Arguably, the bidder would have been entitled to use frustration as a means of withdrawing from the agreement. Clearly, the circumstances of the painting being partially destroyed made performance of the contract very different from that which the bidder originally anticipated.

Imagine, for instance, if two parties had agreed terms concerning the sale of a vintage car. What if the car was stolen before it could be delivered to the buyer? It is later found by the Police on waste ground, completely burnt out by the thieves/vandals. Would the buyer really consider herself to be bound by the terms of the agreement concluded with the seller or would it be reasonable to assume that the contract was terminated due to frustration?


This area of the law of contract involves risk. The issue of risk relates to any harm or damage caused to the goods and, more importantly, who will have to bear the loss should this happen i.e. the seller or the buyer?

In Chapter 4 of Introductory Scots Law, I discuss the implications for transactions involving the sale of physical/corporeal property and the application of risk.

The question to ask is what kind of category of sale does the transaction fall under?

  • Consumer sale (B2C)?
  • Business to business sale (B2B)?
  • A sale between two private individuals (C2C)?

Section 29 of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 now addresses the issue of risk in relation to consumer contracts of sale before and after the physical possession of the goods has been transferred to the buyer (i.e. delivery has taken place). This is an area of the law which has been much simplified over the years in relation to consumer contracts for the sale of goods (the same cannot be said of business to business contracts of sale). The basic rule is that risk will lie with the trader until such time as s/he is able to transfer physical possession of the goods to the consumer or someone identified by her to take possession of the goods.

Presuming that sale of the vehicle was a consumer transaction, I think most reasonable people would opt for frustration of contract in this situation. Presumably, the seller of the car (the trader) has an insurance policy in place to cover such eventualities as theft and destruction.

In business to business sales and private sales, risk will pass from the seller to the buyer when the parties intend that it should pass or depending upon the classification of the goods (as per Section 18 of the Sale of Goods Act 1979 with its 5 rules).

In the strange environment of the international art world, the semi-destroyed Banksy painting became even more valuable and the bidder was happy to pay the purchase price. This, however, is not normal behaviour for most ordinary people.

Football: it’s a funny old game

On a more tragic note, the issue of possible frustration of contract rose once more in relation to the death of the Argentinian footballer, Emiliano Sala who had completed a transfer agreement to leave the French club, FC Nantes and go to Cardiff City, the English Premier League club.

Before he could play his first competitive game with his new club, Mr Sala was killed in a plane crash over the English Channel. This led to demands by Nantes for payment of the first part of the transfer fee of £15 million from Cardiff City FC.

Such a contract i.e. for personal services could conceivably be discharged by the death of the person who was to perform it. Additionally, the incapacity of a person who is to perform a personal contract may discharge it. However, temporary incapacity is not enough unless it affects the performance of the contract in a really serious way. If an employee is killed or permanently incapacitated, it may be very difficult to argue that the employment contract should be allowed to continue.

Sadly, in the Sala tragedy, it looks as if the lawyers will be the only winners here.

Links to media stories about the Sala dispute can be accessed below:

Nantes demand first slice of £15m Emiliano Sala fee from Cardiff


Frustration can only be used to have the contract discharged in situations where neither party is to blame. When one party is to blame for the failure to perform his obligations under the agreement, this represents a breach of contract and the innocent party can raise the appropriate action.

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 10 February 2019

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