The Court of Appeal have handed down the highly anticipated judgement in Holt v Holley & Steer Solicitors  EWCA Civ 851 regarding a professional negligence claim bought against a law firm for their handling of a divorce matter. The case concerned when the deemed date of accrual of the cause of action was and thus when the starting point for the six year limitation period.
What are the facts of the case?
The proceedings were brought in respect of Ms Holt’s (the “Claimant”) claim for alleged professional negligence against Holley & Steer Solicitors (the “Firm”) in the course of their acting for her in financial relief proceedings on her divorce from her husband, Mr Timothy Rawlings (“the Husband”). Her complaint was that in the course of those proceedings, the Firm negligently failed to obtain expert evidence as to the value of certain real properties and jewellery, and to secure permission to admit such evidence at the financial remedies hearing.
The District Judge in the present action had found that the Claimant’s claim against the Firm, so far as founded in contract, was time barred, after expiry of the 6 year limitation period, by virtue of s.5 of the Limitation Act 1980, but that her claim founded on tort was not so barred by the equivalent provision in s.2 of that Act. The Firm appealed against the District Judge’s order, in respect of his conclusion as to the claim in tort.
Judge Ralton allowed that appeal. The judge found that the Claimant’s claim as a whole, was barred by both s. 2 and s. 5 of the 1980 Act. As a result, he awarded summary judgment in favour of the Firm pursuant to CPR Part 24. The judge ordered Ms Holt to pay the costs of the action to be assessed.
What is the limitation period in a professional negligence case?
Proceedings for professional negligence claims must be brought within time limits, otherwise the claim is statute barred.
The limitation period is 6 years from the accrual of the cause of action (section 2, Limitation Act 1980). However, if six years have passed since the date of negligence but a claimant has only just discovered the effect of latent damage, then the limitation period may be extended to three years from the date of knowledge of the material facts (section 14A, Limitation Act 1980).
In any event, legal representation should be sought immediately upon an act of negligence to prevent claims from being time-barred.
When was the date of loss?
The case came down to when the Claimant had suffered damage from any negligence caused by the Firm. As is often the case in cases such as this the Claimant brought parallel claims in tort and contract.
In the first instance the County Court had deemed that Holt’s claim in contract was time-barred after expiry of the 6 year limitation period, however her tortious claim was not.
The Firm then appealed this judgment and successfully argued that Holt’s tortious claim for professional negligence was also time barred. Lord Justice McCombe dissenting, stated:
In the result, I consider that, on her case, Ms Holt suffered “measurable damage” and was “financially worse off” at the latest by the end of the hearing on 16 March 2012, as Judge Ralton held, and in all probability much earlier than that. Therefore, her claim for damages in tort was barred by s.2 of the 1980 Act before the claim form was issued on 5 April 2018.Paragraph 61
That inevitably meant that the value of her rights vis-à-vis the husband were diminished and that in any event the damage she suffered was more than 6 years before the commencement of this action.
You can download the judgment here:
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LIMITATION ACT 1980 – WARNING
The Limitation Act 1980 sets out strict statutory deadlines within which you must bring litigation claims. Your legal rights will become irreversibly time-barred if you fail to take legal action (or defend a claim on time). Therefore, you should seek specific legal advice about your legal dispute at the very first opportunity so that you understand the time you have left. Failure to take advice or delay in taking action can be fatal to your prospects of success.