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H v. Suffolk County Council


Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal was bound by the decision of the House of Lords in Stubbings v Webb (1993) AC 498 to hold that although most claims for damages for physical or psychiatric injury had an extendable three-year limitation period from the date of the claimant's knowledge, claims for damages arising out of an intentional sexual assault had a non-extendable six-year limitation period from the date of the assault.

The appellants (H, X and Y) appealed against decisions dismissing their claims for damages for the psychiatric harm they had suffered as a consequence of sexual abuse to which they were exposed during their school days with the respondent local authorities. The appellant (A) appealed against a decision that her claim for damages for attempted rape against the respondent sex offender was statute barred. All four cases had been determined in accordance with Stubbings v Webb (1993) AC 498, which meant that each had been treated as incidents of intentional sexual assault and were therefore subject to a non-extendable limitation period of six years. Although the Law Commission had recommended a reform whereby extension of the limitation period in such circumstances should be in the discretion of the court, no such reform had been implemented. It was argued that (1) the decision in Stubbings should no longer be followed because it was wrong or because the Law Commission had demonstrated that the approach should be different; (2) Stubbings should no longer be followed because Limitation Act 1980 s.11(1) ought to be construed differently in the light of the Human Rights Act 1998 s.3; (3) Stubbings did not apply to a claim against a public authority; (4) Stubbings could be distinguished on the facts where a claimant could also rely on a breach of a duty of care that did not arise solely in connection with the deliberate act or acts of trespass to the person or was different from the simplistic duty of care to avoid causing personal injury.

HELD: (1) Stubbings was binding on the Court of Appeal and it was not open to the court to depart from that decision. Only the House of Lords could decide whether it wished to review the decision, Stubbings followed, Billings v Reed (1945) KB11 and Letang v Cooper (1965) 1 QB 232 considered. (2) In the instant case, the respondents had an accrued right to plead the six year non-extendable limitation period provided for in s.2 of the 1980 Act before the 1998 Act came into force, Yew Bon Tew alias Yong Boon Tiew v Kenderaan Bas Maria (1983) 1 AC 553 applied. None of the appellants were entitled to rely upon s.3(1) of the 1998 Act so as to enable the court to construe s.11(1) of the 1980 Act differently from the way in which the House of Lords had construed it in Stubbings. (3) In order to avoid the effect of s.2 of the 1980 Act, a claimant had to show that the action against the local authority was an "action for damages for negligence, nuisance or breach of duty" within s.11(1). There was no logical basis for holding that an action against a teacher in respect of sexual abuse was not such an action, where an action against the local authority on the basis of its vicarious liability for the teacher's unauthorised acts did come within the language of s.11(1). The effect of Stubbings was that both claims were outside s.11(1) and within s.2. (4) In principle, where a teacher, in flagrant breach of the duty owed to a pupil in his charge, groomed him and performed indecent assaults on him, the law should not provide a more relaxed limitation regime for the less serious breaches of duty and a more stringent regime for the more serious breaches. Unconstrained by authority, the court would be inclined to hold that such a claimant should recover damages for breach of duty in respect of the cumulative effect of all those activities, so that recovery was not confined to those improper activities that did not constitute intentional assaults. However, the Court of Appeal in KR v Bryn Alyn Community (Holdings) Ltd (In Liquidation) (2003) EWCA Civ 85 , (2004) 2 All ER 716 had expressly preferred the approach in Lister v Hesley Hall Ltd (2001) UKHL 22 , (2001) 2 WLR 1311 as to the non-viability of an alternative claim based on breach of duty. Furthermore, in C v Middlesbrough Council (2004) EWCA Civ 1746, the Court of Appeal held that it was bound not to apply the more relaxed limitation regime that was available in "breach of duty cases", Bryn Alyn followed, Middlesbrough and Hesley Hall Ltd considered. It was not appropriate to include a teacher's failure to report any abuse to the school authorities among his breaches of duty and the local authority would not have vicarious liability in that respect. In all the circumstances, the court was therefore bound by the decision in Stubbings to hold that the appellants’ claims were statute barred.

Appeals dismissed.

(2006) 1 WLR 2320,[2006] EWCA Civ 395

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