Limitation Periods

If you have been wronged by someone who, for example, hasn’t repaid a loan, sold you something that wasn’t what they promised, slandered you, et cetera, and you go to lawyer to find out what you can do resolve the situation, one of the first questions the lawyer will ask you is “when did this happen?” The reason for this is simple: limitation periods. Regardless of how badly you were wronged or terrific your case is, if you wait too long, you could lose your right to legally do anything about it.

Everyone knows from TV lawyer shows that there are statutes of limitations for crimes and unlawful acts. TV makes it seem black and white: the characters say things like: “there’s no limitation on murder, Jack, so keep looking over your shoulder” or “in 24 hours the limitation period runs out and then I and my millions are home free!” Of course, in real life it isn’t quite so simple. There isn’t a big book filled with limitation periods of every conceivable crime. The limitation periods that are written down are scattered across various pieces of legislation and are subject to many qualifications.

The main source for looking up a limitation period in civil matters is the BC Limitation Act, RSBC 1996, c 266. This is as close to a limitation period bible in BC as you are going to find. Section 3 sets out the limitation periods for various categories of acts, such as breach of contract, damages arising from personal injury, and realizing on collateral for debt, and the rest of the Act deals with exceptions. This is where it gets tricky, because even though your particular problem might appear to be captured under the Limitation Act, there might be a separate piece of legislation that given it a different limitation period. For example, the Wills Variation Act, Builders’ Lien Act, Administrative Tribunals Act, Tax Act, and the Criminal Code all have their own limitations. Knowing which Act applies and how it relates to a particular situation is kind of complicated and will depend on the facts of your particular situation.

Also, how your situation is framed is also relevant to determining what the limitation period is. Did someone cheat you on a business deal? You could sue them for damages from breach of contract or, depending on the facts; you could possibly sue them for breach of fiduciary duty, which has a different limitation period.

When a limitation period starts running may also affect your situation. If the grievous act occurred, for example, while you were a minor or in a coma, then the clock would not start ticking until you came of age or woke up. Also, you might not know that the wrong had occurred. If a trustee was pilfering your trust fund, it might be years before you would discover it, so your particular limitation period clock would not begin ticking until you had knowledge or should have reasonably had knowledge of the wrongdoing.

The point is, which limitation period applies to you and when it began are not questions that can be answered without knowing some facts about your situation and often doing a bit of research, but once the time period has run out, so has your luck. Miss a limitation period and in most cases you’ve missed your chance at justice.

That seems a bit harsh, but there are good reasons for limitations. Ideally we want people to bring legal actions sooner than later. It is preferable to initiate legal proceedings while the evidence is intact and while everyone’s memories are reasonably fresh. Also, without limitation periods there would be no protection against someone suing you for an alleged defamation, traffic accident or breach of contract that occurred 30 years ago, and that just isn’t reasonable.

Limitation periods exist, they can be complicated to understand and apply, and if you miss one, you’re in trouble. The best way to avoid running into difficulties is to act as soon as you think you need to take legal action on a matter and speak to a lawyer. Don’t put it off. And even if you think you have missed your limitation period, you might want to confirm this with a lawyer because you could be wrong and you don’t want to abandon your right to justice just because you didn’t act quickly enough. You can call the Lawyer Referral section of the BC chapter of the Canadian Bar Association and they will direct you to a lawyer that will answer general questions about the law for $25 for a ½ hour.

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