Limitation Periods Limiting the Right to Sue: the Limitation Act in Singapore
The law imposes time limits on a cause of action, the expiry of which means that a plaintiff can no longer commence legal action on that cause of action. This is governed by the Limitation Act, the purpose of which is mainly to discourage delayed litigation, years after damage has been done.
Actions in Contract or Tort
Generally, by virtue of section 6(1)(a) of the Limitation Act, an action founded on contract or tort cannot be commenced more than 6 years after the cause of action accrues.
However, section 6 is subject to other provisions in the Limitation Act. Therefore, shorter or longer time limits may override section 6 under certain conditions, such as where the action involves personal injuries or latent damages (see below).
Contractual Actions (E.g. Loans, Employment Contracts)
An action founded on contract refers to any legal action relating to a certain contract. For instance, where a party breaches a contract, the other party may want to sue to recover compensation for the breach.
One example would be where an employee stops showing up for work and thereby breaches his employment contract. Another example would be where a debtor defaults on an IOU and does not repay a loan.
An action founded on contract cannot be commenced more than 6 years after the cause of action accrues. The cause of action accrues on the date when the defendant breached the contract.
The limitation period for contractual actions (found in section 6(1)(a) of the Limitation Act) is subject to section 24A (see below).
Tort Actions (E.g. Negligence, Defamation)
A tort is a civil wrong committed by a tortfeasor (or wrongdoer) or another person. There is a wide variety of torts recognised by Singapore law. Some torts (such as the tort of battery) overlap with statutory criminal offences. If so, there may be little need to sue on the tort – making a police report to report the crime should suffice. Depending on the facts, by virtue of section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code, a judge may order a convicted offender to pay compensation to the victim, thereby negating the need to sue for the tort.
For other torts, such as the tort of negligence, or the tort of defamation, a civil action may be commenced to recover compensation from the wrongdoer. The cause of action accrues on either the date of the breach / infringement, or the date when damage to the plaintiff occurs (depending on whether a tort is actionable per se without proof of the damage).
The limitation period for tortious actions (found in section 6(1)(a) of the Limitation Act) is subject to section 24A (see below).
Negligence, nuisance, and breach of duty causing personal injuries (section 24A)
In a legal claim against negligence, nuisance, and breaches of duty where the damages claimed consists of or includes personal injuries, the limitation period is either:
- 3 years from the date on which the cause of action accrued; or
- 3 years from the earliest date on which the plaintiff has the knowledge required for bringing an action for damages in respect of the relevant injury
whichever is the later date.
As an example, in a negligence case, where a patient loses his sight due to a doctor’s negligently performed surgery, but remains unaware of such negligence until a later time, he would have a right to sue the doctor, as long as he commences legal action within 3 years after he realises that the doctor was negligent.
Negligence, nuisance, and breach of duty causing damage other than personal injuries (section 24A)
In a legal claim against negligence, nuisance, and breaches of duty where the damages claimed do not include personal injuries, the limitation period is either:
- 6 years from the date on which the cause of action accrued; or
- 3 years from the earliest date on which the plaintiff or any person in whom the cause of action was vested before him first had both the knowledge required for bringing an action for damages in respect of the relevant damage and a right to bring such an action,
whichever is the later date.
Damage other than personal injuries include, for instance, damage to vehicles or houses.
Overriding time limit for all actions for damages for negligence, nuisance or breach of duty
By virtue of section 24B of the Limitation Act, the overriding time limit for all actions for damages for negligence, nuisance or breach of duty is 15 years from the starting date (defined in the same section).
Death by Wrongful Act, Neglect, or Default
In cases of death by wrongful act, neglect, or default, the dependant’s claims have to be brought within 3 years of the death, pursuant to section 20 of the Civil Law Act, where the injured person (if death had not ensued) would have been entitled to maintain an action and recover damages.
Other Limitation Periods
The Limitation Act imposes a host of other rules and time limits on a variety of situations. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss them in detail. Some of the more salient provisions and rules are as follows:
- Actions for enforcements: see section 6(1) of the Limitation Act;
- Account of profits: see section 6(2) of the Limitation Act;
- Claims for specific performance of a contract or for an injunction or for other equitable relief: see section 6(7) of the Limitation Act;
- Actions in respect of trust property: see section 22 of the Limitation Act;
- Plaintiff under disability: see section 24 of the Limitation Act;
- Actions based on fraud: see section 29 of the Limitation Act;
- Right of action concealed by fraud: see section 29 of the Limitation Act; and
- Doctrine of laches: see section 32 of the Limitation Act.
Seeking Legal Advice
Limitation is a legal issue best left to legal professionals. The best advice a layman can follow is to try to commence legal action as soon as practicable where he is sure he wants to resort to legal recourse, and to consult a lawyer about his rights where he is not so sure.
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