Limitation on Midnight Deadlines

In Matthew and others v Sedman and others, the Supreme Court was asked to clarify ‘midnight deadlines’ and to decide whether the day immediately following the stroke of midnight counts towards the calculation of a limitation period.

The appellants were trustees attempting to sue the trust’s previous trustees for failing to make a claim on or before the bar date under the “scheme of arrangement” which was midnight on Thursday 2 June 2011. 

The action was issued in negligence and breach of trust on Monday 5 June 2017.  Under the Limitation Act 1980, actions brought in tort, contract, and breach of trust cannot be brought after the expiration of six years from the date on which the cause of action accrued.  The respondents argued that the claim was issued out of time and was therefore statute-barred by the Limitation Act.  The appellants argued that the cause of action accrued after the stroke of midnight, and that even a fraction of a second would constitute ‘part of a day’. Therefore, 3 June 2011 was to be excluded for the purposes of calculating the limitation period.  The respondents’ argument rested on the assertion that the cause of action had accrued at the stroke of midnight 3 June 2011, rather than after midnight. Therefore, for the purposes of calculating limitation, Friday 3 June 2011 was to be included and limitation expired on 2 June 2017.

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal and found that the disgruntled trustees were out of time.  The Court ruled that the day following a midnight deadline is a “complete undivided day”.  In his judgment, Lord Stephens said, “I consider that it would impermissibly transcend practical reality if the stroke of midnight or some infinitesimal division of a second after midnight, led to the conclusion that the concept of an undivided day was no longer appropriate. In that sense this would not only be impermissible metaphysics but also, in this context, such a minimum period of time does not cross the threshold as capable of being recognised by the law”. 

Lord Stephens concluded, “Whether the issue is framed in terms of metaphysics, which the common law eschews, or of the principle that the law does not concern itself with trifling matters, the conclusion is the same: realistically, there is no fraction of a day. That being so, the justification in relation to fractions of a day does not apply in a midnight deadline case.”

Whilst the outcome of this case is not all that surprising, it is a timely reminder to ensure that any action is issued within the relevant limitation period and any claims should be considered and assessed on their merits by legal advisers in good time.

Posted on 10 June, 2021 by Ortolan

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