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UK Case law: Matthew and others (Appellants) v Sedman and others (Respondents)  UKSC 19
News & Insights 1 September 2021
Key words: Limitation period
Limitation Act 1980 – Accrual of cause of action – Midnight deadline – Limitation period
In this case, the Supreme Court considered an appeal in relation to the calculation of a limitation period, in respect of causes of action which accrued at, or on the expiry of, the midnight hour of a day.
We focus below on the courts’ decisions, but for the detailed facts (which are not shipping related) please see Hill Dickinson’s commentary here.
Hight Court decision
The judge held that if a cause of action arises during the course of a day, that day is excluded from the calculation of the limitation period. Otherwise, a claimant would not have a full six-year period within which to bring his cause of action.
However, relying on the Gelmini v Moriggia  2 KB 549, the judge held that “where it is absolutely clear that the cause of action arises at the very beginning of a particular day, that day should not be excluded from the calculation for Limitation Act purposes” as this would have the effect of giving the claimant an extra day over and above the statutory limitation period.
Court of Appeal decision
The case was referred to the Court of Appeal, which confirmed the longstanding authority that the day the cause of action arises shall be excluded from the calculation of the limitation period. There were, however, differing views as to the timing of accrual of an action when the deadline is at midnight (precisely) with two judges arguing that if the deadline is at midnight the cause of action arises at, and not after, midnight.
Supreme Court decision
The case was further appealed and the Supreme Court granted permission.
The appellants argued that the causes of action accrued after midnight and relied on the general rule that the day of accrual of the causes of action should be excluded from calculation of the six-year limitation period to conclude that the claim was issued in time.
The Supreme Court rejected the appeal. It clarified that the reason for the general rule that the day of accrual of the cause of action should be excluded from the reckoning of time is that “the law rejects a fraction of a day”. The Supreme Court explained that the general rule seeks to “prevent part of a day being counted as a whole day for the purposes of limitation, thereby prejudicing the claimant and interfering with the time periods stipulated in the Limitation Act 1980”.
However, it went on to say that “the justification in relation to fractions of a day does not apply in a midnight deadline case” because “if that day were excluded from the computation of time then the limitation period would be six years and one complete day”. Since the appellants’ causes of action accrued at midnight, the following day was a whole day and should be included in the computation of the limitation period. On that basis, the claim was out of time.
This decision in this case:
- highlights the importance of properly calculating the limitation period;
- reinstates the longstanding rule that the day of accrual of the cause of action should be excluded from the reckoning of time in all cases; and,
- clears up any confusion as to: a) when the cause of action accrues when a midnight deadline is missed and b) how, in those circumstances, the limitation period is computed.
Of course, it also highlights the importance of not leaving matters to the last minute, especially when it comes to issues of limitation and time bars. It is a salutary lesson that years of litigation, and the legal fees of pursuing a matter all the way to the Supreme Court, could have been avoided had action been taken well in advance of the 6-year deadline.
- Link to commentary by Hill Dickinson can be found here