HC Deb 23 July 1987 vol 120 cc595-7 10.45 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. John Stanley)

I beg to move, That the Limitation (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 2nd April, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved. This draft order is based on the 24th report of the Law Reform Committee entitled "Latent Damage", implemented in relation to England and Wales by the Latent Damage Act 1986. It also amends the law of limitation in respect of libel and slander actions in Northern Ireland.

The general principle underlying the law of limitation in most developed legal systems is that a plaintiff must commence a civil action for damages within a particular period if he is not to be debarred from doing so. In Northern Ireland, as in England and Wales, the general principle is that the limitation period starts to run against the plaintiff from the date of the accrual of his cause of action, that is, from the date when he first has the right to bring the action. In negligence cases, other than personal injury cases, which are outside the scope of the order, the general limitation period is six years. The six-year period starts from the date when damage first results from breach of the duty of care. In many cases the damage follows quickly upon the negligent act and is perfectly obvious. But there are cases where the damage does not occur, or where it is not discoverable, until after the six-year period has expired.

The Law Reform Committee considered that the present law was unjust from the point of view of both plaintiffs and defendants. As far as a plaintiff was concerned the six-year period might well elapse before the potential plaintiff could reasonably be aware that he had a right of action. This might occur in the case of a defect in the foundations or structure of a building. But it might equally apply to professional advice, for example by a solicitor or accountant, damage from which might not become apparent until well after negligence had occurred. At the same time the system could also prove unfair to a defendant because damage could start arising many years after the act of negligence had taken place so that he might not be in a position either to contest the claim on the basis of his records or to meet it with adequate insurance cover.

The order closely follows the Law Reform Committee's report. Article 3 takes account of the committee's principal recommendations. First, the ordinary limitation period of six years should be subject to an extension which would allow the plaintiff three years to commence an action from the date of discovery of significant damage, or the date on which he could reasonably have discovered it. Secondly, non-injury negligence claims should, in the absence of deliberate concealment on the part of the defendant, be subject to a longstop which would stop them being initiated after 15 years had elapsed from the breach of duty of care.

Those recommendations are further developed in article 4 by two consequential provisions. The first makes special provision for the situation where the plaintiff comes under a disability, for example unsoundness of mind, after a cause of action for negligence has occurred. The second provision disapplies the 15-year longstop from negligence cases in which there is deliberate concealment on the part of the defendant. In such cases, as now, the six-year period does not begin to run until the date when the plaintiff first discovered, or could have discovered, the concealment—whatever the date.

Article 5 enables persons who acquire property which is subject to latent damage to have a right of action in respect of that damaged property. Although this provision provides for the accrual of a new cause of action to each successive owner at the time when he acquires the property, it is subject to the same limitation periods as the original cause of action, including the longstop. Again this flows from the Law Reform Committee's principal recommendations.

Finally, I said that the order makes some changes in respect of limitations in libel and slander actions. Article 6 takes account of the changes made in England and Wales in section 57 of the Administration of Justice Act 1985 by reducing the limitation period in libel from six years to three. As it happens, the limit of slander is three years under the existing law in Northern Ireland. So this change makes all limitation periods for defamation actions of the same length. In addition, like section 57 of the English 1985 Act, it provides for a new extension of one year, for which leave of the High Court is necessary, where certain facts were not known to the plaintiff until after the three year limitation had expired.

This order is most technical, but I believe it is a useful piece of law reform. It has been welcomed on consultation. I commend it to the House.

10.50 pm
Mr. James Marshall (Leicester, South)

I thank the Minister for his full outline of the draft order. As he rightly said, the order is technical, but it is a useful law reform measure, which we welcome in this House, as it was welcomed in another place. However, the Minister will be aware that in the other place Lord Fitt expressed some concern about the way in which such matters were discussed in Northern Ireland.

I shall refresh the Minister's mind. Lord Fitt made three points: first, that insufficient attention was given to law reform in the Province; secondly, that there was inadequate scrutiny, despite the kind of assurance which the Minister gave the House and which his noble Friend gave in another place; and, thirdly— this is the most important point — that there is no Northern Ireland voice on the Law Commission. Lord Fitt gave a great deal of attention to these points, particularly the third one. Will the Minister respond to the concerns that were expressed in another place? We welcome the draft order. It is a technical improvement upon existing law in the Province.

10.51 pm
Mr. Stanley

With the leave of the House, perhaps I can reply to the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). The hon. Gentleman referred to inadequate debate and scrutiny. When he began his remarks, I thought that he was referring to the degree of debate and scrutiny in the House. As he knows, that matter has beer raised by many hon. Members since the new Parliament started. We have responded, and the matter is being considered through the usual channels. However, the hon. Gentleman went on to a more specific point, and that is the adequacy of Northern Ireland representation on the Law Commission. That matter is not within my ministerial responsibilities. Therefore, I shall make further inquiries. I shall certainly consult my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on that point.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Limitation (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1987, which was laid before this House on 2nd April, in the last Session of Parliament, be approved.