Law Report: Adult cannot sue over abuse in childhood: Stubbings v Webb and another - House of Lords (Lord Templeman, Lord Bridge of Harwich, Lord Griffiths, Lord Ackner and Lord Slynn of Hadley), 16 December 1992

Rape and indecent assault fell within the category of trespass to the person and claims for damages for personal injury founded on such allegations were subject to the six-year limitation period under section 2 of the Limitation Act 1980, and not to the three-year period applicable to accident cases under section 11, which was subject to discretionary extension by the court in certain circumstances.

Accordingly, the plaintiff's action, claiming damages for mental illness and psychological disturbance allegedly caused by sexual abuse by other members of her family during her childhood, having been commenced more than six years after the accrual of her cause of action, was statute-barred.

The House of Lords allowed an appeal by the defendants, James Francis Webb and his son Stephen Webb, against the dismissal by the Court of Appeal (the Independent, 14 May 1991) of their appeal from Mr Justice Potter, who, on 28 February 1990, had ruled that the plaintiff, Lesley Jacqueline Stubbings, was not time-barred from pursuing her action against the defendants.

The plaintiff, who will be 36 on 29 January 1993, alleged that the first defendant, her adoptive father, had sexually abused her during her childhood between the ages of 2 and 14, and the second defendant, her adoptive brother, had raped her when she was 12 and he was 17, and that these actions had caused mental illness and psychological disturbance during her adulthood. The defendants denied the allegations and contended that the action was time-barred.

The Limitation Act 1980, which replaced earlier provisions, provided by section 2 that 'action founded on tort shall not be brought after the expiration of six years from the date on which the cause of action accrued'.

By section 11: '(1) This section applies to any action for damages for negligence, nuisance or breach of duty . . . where the damages claimed by the plaintiff for the negligence, nuisance or breach of duty consist of or include damages in respect of personal injuries to the plaintiff or any other person.'

By section 11(4) the time limit for such actions was 'three years from (a) the date on which the cause of action accrued, or (b) the date of knowledge (if later) of the person injured'.

The date of knowledge of the person injured was defined in section 14(1) as 'the date on which he first had knowledge . . . (a) that the injury in question was significant; and (b) that the injury was attributable in whole or in part to the act or omission which is alleged to constitute negligence, nuisance or breach of duty . . . '

Richard Mawray QC and Lawrence West (Sharpe Pritchard, for Birkett Westhorp & Long, Colchester) for James Webb; Kieran Coonan QC and Roy Warne (Greenwood, Page & Ward, Colchester) for Stephen Webb; Maurice Kay QC and Robert Grey (Fisher Jones, Colchester) for the plaintiff.

LORD GRIFFITHS said that argument in the Court of Appeal had focused upon whether the plaintiff knew she had suffered significant injury more than three years before she began her action on 18 August 1987. The plaintiff's case was that although she knew she had been raped and persistently sexually abused, she did not realise she had suffered sufficiently serious injury to justify starting proceedings for damages until she realised there might be a causal link between psychiatric problems she had suffered in adult life and her sexual abuse as a child.

The Court of Appeal, after considerable hesitation, accepted the plaintiff's argument. His Lordship did not find it easy to agree. Personal injury was defined in section 38 of the Act as including 'any impairment of a person's physical or mental condition' and it was difficult to accept that a woman who knew she had been raped did not know she had suffered a significant injury.

However, it was not necessary to resolve that difficult issue as his Lordship accepted the defendants' argument that section 11(1) did not apply to a cause of action based on indecent assault or rape, for which the limitation period was six years and was not subject to extension under section 11.

The Court of Appeal had dealt shortly with that argument because they considered themselves bound by Letang v Cooper (1965) 1 QB 232, in which it was held that the language of section 11(1) (then contained in section 2(1) of the Limitation Act 1954) embraced a claim based on trespass to the person.

But it was now clear that section 2(1) of the 1954 Act had been enacted with the deliberate intention of giving effect to the 1949 Tucker Committee Report on the Limitation of Actions (Cmnd 7740) which had advised a three-year limitation period (instead of six years) for what could be broadly described as accident cases, which should not include causes of action such as rape or indecent assault.

It followed that the plaintiff's cause of action was subject to a six-year limitation period. This period was suspended during her infancy, but commenced to run when she attained her majority: see section 28 of the 1980 Act. This period expired many years before she issued her writ. There were no provisions for extending the period and her action was therefore statute-barred.

LORD TEMPLEMAN, LORD BRIDGE, LORD ACKNER and LORD SLYNN agreed.

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