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Limitation in a professional negligence context: Chinnock v Wasbrough [2015] EWCA Civ 441

S.14A(9) Limitation Act 1980 provides that knowledge of whether or not any acts (or omissions) amount to negligence is irrelevant for limitation purposes.

Where a professional negligence claim is made against solicitors in relation to their advice on a potential claim, there can be two relevant acts which may have amounted to negligence: firstly the acts on which the solicitors were advising and secondly the advice of the legal solicitors themselves.

In Chinnock the Claimant, C, sought the advice of the Defendant solicitors, D, in relation to a potential clinical negligence claim. D informed C that her doctors had withheld information from her but nevertheless advised that her claim had no real prospect of success. Although C was upset and surprised by this, she sought no further advice on the potential claim until it was mentioned during divorce proceedings 8 years later.  Solicitors acting in the divorce advised C that she had had a valid clinical negligence claim, on the basis that her doctors had withheld information from her, and that therefore D’s advice had been negligent. 

On a preliminary issue, the Judge found that C’s claim against D was statute-barred. The Judge held that due to s.14A(9) C had actual knowledge of all required elements for the limitation period to start running, including that she had suffered damage in losing a valid claim, at the time of the Defendants’ advice. As C knew that information had been withheld from her by her doctors, she knew the facts that would have amounted to negligence on the part of her doctors which would have given her a valid claim and her knowledge of negligence was irrelevant due to s.14A(9). C appealed.

The Court of Appeal upheld the Judge’s decision on limitation but, by a majority, on the basis of constructive knowledge rather than actual knowledge. The majority held that the negligence referred to in s.14A(9) was negligence of a Defendant rather than the negligence of third parties upon which the Defendant was advising. C did not know that she had lost a valid claim and so did not have actual knowledge that she had suffered damage. However, a reasonable person in her position would have sought further advice rather than waiting 8 years. She therefore had constructive knowledge. 

The judgment on limitation is strictly obiter due to the Court of Appeal finding that D’s advice was not negligent. However, the Court of Appeal noted that there is some tension between other authorities on the issue, and so provided detailed analysis.

Jane Clifton / 18th Dec 2015


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