Time's Up!: Limitation period for bringing libel actions

One of the significant steps taken over the past couple of years to seek to correct the imbalance between libel claimants and defendants has been to further reduce the period of time that a person who feels he has been defamed has to commence court proceedings.

Most civil wrongdoings carry a six-year time limit – known as the ‘limitation period’ – in which proceedings must be brought. This was reduced, in the case of libel, to three years and subsequently, in 1996, to one year. The rationale was that claims to protect one’s reputation ought to be pursued with vigour. Memories fade. Journalists and their sources may become untraceable. Notes and other records are retained only for a short period. The one-year limitation period sought to recognise these factors.

It is open to a complainant who has missed the limitation period to apply to the

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court to allow a claim to proceed outside of that time period.

On 23 October 2001, however, the Court of Appeal made it crystal clear that the one-year limit cannot be overcome in anything other than exceptional circumstances. In the case of Steedman and Others (Police Officers) v BBC, although the delay was attributed to a failure on the part of the claimants’ solicitors, the Court of Appeal has just held that, in the new climate of civil litigation, delay itself is rightly treated as prejudicial to the administration of justice. The court considered that the existence of a claim against the solicitors for negligence to an extent removed prejudice which the claimants faced.

This contrasts starkly with the leading case from 10 years ago, Hartley v Birmingham City Council, in which the Court of Appeal held in a personal injury action that, where the six-year limitation period applying to


personal injury actions had been overlooked by one day, this had no effect on the defendant’s ability to defend and the case was allowed to proceed. In the Steedman case of last month, the Court of Appeal contrasted its decision with Hartley, stating that the court’s approach to delay has undergone a sea change. The Court of Appeal also rejected arguments that if the libel action did not proceed, the claimants would not be able to vindicate themselves, holding that an apology 15 months or more after the alleged libel was an "entirely empty gesture".

The media will no doubt welcome this ruling bringing, as it does, further pressure to bear upon those contemplating an action for libel.


            Chris Hutchings is media and entertainment partner at Charles Russell



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