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McDonnell v Congregation of Christian Brothers Trustees and Another, House of Lords, 4 December 2003

10 December 2003
The issues

Limitation – sexual abuse – bullying – schools.

The facts

The Claimant sought damages in respect of physical and emotional sexual abuse, which was alleged he had suffered at various times during 1941 and 1951. His claims became statute barred under the existing law on 6th January 1963. The Act applicable at the time of the alleged abuse, the Limitation Act 1939, was amended by the Limitation Act 1963 and the Limitation Act 1975. The effect was to allow for a date of knowledge test for the running of time in certain cases. The Claimant argued that the effect of those Acts together with the Act of 1980 was to remove the Statute Bar to his claim. The Court dismissed the Claimant’s Appeal. The Claimant appealed to the House of Lords

The decision

1. The 1963 Limitation Act laid down a “date of knowledge” test. It also contained transitional provisions to the effect that the Act should apply to causes of action accruing before as well as after the passing of the Act. A Law Reform Committee was asked to consider the 1963 Act and did so in a report, which gave rise to the 1975 Limitation Act. The report noted that Parliament had previously apparently accepted that the relevant cause of action arising before a change in the law on limitation should be subject to the new limitation provisions notwithstanding that the Claimant’s claim was under the old law already statute barred.

2. The 1975 Act contained a transitional provision, providing that the Act should have effect in relation to causes of action accruing before as well as causes of action accruing after the Act. The issue had come before the House of Lords before in Arnold -v- Central Electricity Generating Board (1988). That decision confirmed that the 1975 Act was intended to apply retrospectively to all personal injury actions previously governed by the three year limitation period under the Law Reform (Limitation of Actions) Act 1954 as amended by the 1963 Act but that Defendants previously entitled to rely upon the accrued 6 year and 1 year time bars under the 1939 Act would have been left untouched by the 1963 Act and were still permitted to rely on those bars.

3. Arnold was a unanimous decision of the House of Lords, which had now stood for 16 years. Parliament could have reversed the decision but had not done so. The decision was not plainly wrong and the House had already made it plain that it required more than doubt as to the correctness of a considered majority opinion to justify departing from it.

Appeal dismissed.

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