Not every action or claim is worth instituting in a court of law. Often times it is discovered that a plaintiff or claimant’s claim is dead on arrival due to the inadvertence of the plaintiff himself or his counsel. If such plaintiff is lucky to have a good counsel who has discerned and considered preliminary issues in the case before instituting an action, such plaintiff would be saved from the stress and hassle of having his suit thrown out even before the commencement of trial.
As a prospective plaintiff or claimant there is a need for you to know if your suit will stand the test of time by understanding the concept of limitation period. In other words it is imperative to know whether the time prescribed within which to institute an action has not elapsed. A cause of action does not last forever. The statute sets the time within which a cause of action will remain alive. Where a statute provides for a specific time to commence an action, failure to commence that action within the period will defeat the claim rendering the case statute barred.
A defendant who challenges the competence of a suit on the ground that it is statute barred is indirectly challenging the jurisdiction of the court to entertain an incompetent suit. Jurisdiction is fundamental as it is the power of the court to decide a matter. A judgment delivered by a court without jurisdiction is a nullity. Therefore an action brought after the expiration of such limitation period robs the court of the power to adjudicate on such matter.
Limitation periods are creatures of statutes thus to know the limitation law applicable to you depends on the jurisdiction you are in. Limitation laws of each state prescribe the time frame within which actions can be commenced. Failure to commence an action within the prescribed time or after the expiration of such time renders the case statute barred. There is a limitation period for every cause of action which is determined by the nature of the transaction and the limitation law of the state.
The following are examples of some transactions with their limitation period using the limitation Act (Abuja) 2004 and the limitation law of Lagos state 2003 as examples:
- Action founded on simple contract – 6 years –section 7 Limitation Act, Abuja; section 8 Limitation Law, Lagos.
- Action for damages for negligence – 3 years –section 8(1), Limitation Act Abuja; section 9 limitation law Lagos.
- Action for damages for slander – 3 years –section 9, Abuja; section 10, Lagos.
- Action upon instrument under seal – 12 years – section 12, Lagos; section 11, Abuja.
- Action by state authority to recover land is 20 years by virtue of section 16, limitation law Lagos; while the limitation period for this is 12 years in Abuja by virtue of section 15 Limitation Act Abuja.
- Actions for recovery of land is 12 years for individuals.
- Actions against public officers are 3months by virtue of section 2(a) Public Officers Protection Act.
The effect of the above provision is that once a claimant fails to institute an action within 6 years in the case of a simple contract or 3 years in the case of an action for damages for negligence, the suit will be statute barred and the claim defeated.
So you might want to ask when time begins to run in determining whether an action is statute barred. For the purpose of calculating limitation period, time begins to run when the cause of action accrues i.e when the wrong was committed. For example in a case where a contract was entered in year 2010 for the supply of a product till 2020 and both parties have kept to the term of the contract for 8 years. If a breach occurs in the year 2018 for instance the cause of action accrues from that period .The limitation period in this case which is a simple contact is 6years therefore the plaintiff has till 2024 to institute an action against the defendant else the action becomes statute barred.
In order to determine if an action is statute barred one has to look at the date the action was filed in the writ of summons and compare it with the date when the wrong was alleged to have been committed in the statement of claim.
It should be noted that there are exceptions to this limitation law and they are worthy of mention, they include;
- Where there has been a continuance of damage i.e if damage occurs from time to time a fresh cause of action arises from time to time also.
- When there has been an acknowledgement of indebtedness with a promise to pay.
If the limitation period as elapsed and it does not fall within the exception stated above then it is preferable to not institute an action in the court rather other alternative dispute resolution method could be explored.