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

Act of God?

Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash

Throughout the ages, God tends to be blamed for a lot of unfortunate events (it isn’t just a late 20th/early 21st Century phenomenon).

In the Scots law of delict (and in the English law of tort), there is a potential defence to an action for negligence known as damnum fatale or an act of God. The essence of this defence so the defender (or respondent) asserts is that s/he could not prevented harm from occurring to the victim because it was a completely unforeseeable event.

When discussing this defence, the standard case in Scotland to which many commentators refer is Caledonian Railway Co v Greenock Corporation (1917). In this case, the House of Lords was far from impressed by the Greenock Corporation’s argument that freakishly heavy rainfall during summer should be treated as an unforeseeable occurrence – in other words, an act of God. The Corporation had diverted the course of a local burn (stream) in order to fill a swimming pool. Heavy rainfall occurred and the water from the pool overflowed and flooded neighbouring property which belong to the Caledonian Railway. The Greenock Corporation was found liable to the Railway for the damage caused. The amount of rainfall might be unusual for other places in Scotland, but certainly not for Greenock. Knowing Greenock well, I can attest to the amount of rain that falls there on a regular basis and I think an argument could easily be made to confer upon it the dubious accolade of the wettest town in Scotland.

The defence of damnum fatale arose recently (and briefly) in a case before Lord Glennie in the Outer House of the Court of Session (see Allen Woodhouse v Lochs and Glens (Transport) Ltd [2019] CSOH 105).

I will say, of course, from the outset that Lord Glennie sensibly rejected any possible part that this defence might have to play in proceedings:

‘But I am left with this concern. My finding on the evidence is that the weather conditions were unpleasant and the wind was strong – but there was nothing exceptional about the conditions, winds of that strength were foreseeable, and extreme turbulence, being a feature of the topography of that area, could also be foreseen. For that reason I would have rejected the defence of damnum fatale, had it been necessary to consider it.’

The facts of the case were as follows:

Mr Woodhouse was a tourist, who was on a 7 day Ceilidh Spring Break, staying at the Loch Awe Hotel. As part of the package, the defenders (Lochs and Glens (Transport)) took the tourist party on day trips using one of its buses. On one of the day trips, Mr Woodhouse and his fellow tourists had stopped near the top of the well known beauty spot, the Rest and Be Thankful. The weather was particularly foul that day and, understandably, most of the tourists did not take the opportunity to leave the bus and go out to the viewpoint.

This part of the excursion was all too brief and the bus driver decided to leave the viewpoint. Shortly after the bus had pulled away, the driver became aware that the passenger door was slightly open and she stopped the bus to close it. When this was done, she started the bus and headed down the Rest and Be Thankful on the Inveraray side. By this point, the force of the wind had increased dramatically and the bus was effectively heading directly into the path of a violent gale. To cut a long story short, the driver took (what she believed were) reasonable precautions and moderated her speed and driving technique. Nevertheless, despite these measures, the bus eventually went off the road due to a combination of unfortunate events i.e. the uneven slope just above Loch Restil; the lack of a safety barrier at the time of the accident; the high winds and the build up of mud on the vehicle’s wheels as it attempted to navigate the grass verge which affected the braking system.

As a result of the bus leaving the road, Mr Woodhouse suffered injuries and he brought an action for compensation (£15,000) against Lochs and Glens (Transport) for the alleged negligence of its employee. Although Mr Woodhouse’s claim was initially lodged in the Sheriff Court, it was later transferred to the Court of Session in recognition of the importance of some of the issues and consequences which it raised (there were 51 other passengers on the bus that day).

Due to the fact that control of the situation was the responsibility of the defenders and its driver, the burden of proof switched to the defenders to demonstrate that they were not liable in negligence to Mr Woodhouse. The merits of his claim would, therefore, stand or fall on the basis of Mr Woodhouse’s reliance on the legal principle known as the facts speak for themselves (res ipsa loquitur).

In dismissing Mr Woodhouse’s claim for damages, Lord Glennie noted that:

‘I am persuaded on the evidence that the defenders have discharged the burden on them of proving that the accident happened without their negligence. The evidence that the coach was well maintained and did not suffer from any relevant pre-existing defect was not challenged; indeed it was a matter of agreement in the Joint Minute lodged in process by the parties. The only challenge, the only suggestion of fault advanced by the pursuer, was in relation to the actions of the driver.’

Critically, his Lordship went on to say that, although the bus driver may have misjudged the actual speed at which she was driving the vehicle, she had not been driving dangerously.

Taken together, all of these factors demonstrated that neither the defenders nor the driver were liable in negligence to Mr Woodhouse.

A link to Lord Glennie’s Opinion can be found below:


On Friday 21 February 2020, two women were injured in a Glasgow street when a shop sign was dislodged in high winds and landed on them. Were the high winds an act of God or did the store fail to safeguard against this type of incident? Read on …

Two women hit by falling M&S sign in Glasgow city centre

The pedestrians are taken to hospital after the sign landed on them outside the store in Argyle Street.

Related Blog articles dealing with defences to actions in delict:

Copyright Seán J Crossan, 23 December 2019 & 21 February 2020