The Athens Convention: uniformity rules – and quite right

Athens Convention time-bars are not the most riveting topic, but can be important. P&I clubs have little compunction in pouncing on inexperienced personal injury solicitors who miss the two-year time-bar and assume their clients have what is otherwise the normal three years to sue. But what happens when the claimant has the benefit of something that would delay the starting of the clock, such as a later date of knowledge, incapacity or even fraudulent concealment? Subject always to the absolute three-year Athens longstop, can they take advantage of this? Upholding the Inner House, the Supreme Court in a brief decision has now said they can, thus setting to rest doubts stemming from Higham v Stena Sealink Ltd [1996] 1 WLR 110.

The issue turns on the wording of Art.16(2), under which periods of “interruption” or “suspension” of a time-bar are governed by the law of the forum. These terms are normally used in connection with Continental systems’ long-standing habit of switching limitation periods on and off after they have started, rather like a malfunctioning Belisha beacon, on account of all sorts of matters such as ongoing negotiations. We don’t do that, being happy on occasion to delay the starting of the clock, but insisting that once it has started it ticks on to the bitter end. Can “interruption” or “suspension” cover this situation, that is a limitation clock that never starts, as against one that starts and then temporarily stops? The answer is Yes; the only exception is s.33, allowing the limitation period to be disregarded entirely if just and equitable, which clearly neither interrupts nor suspends anything.. And rightly so: Athens needs uniform interpretation, and a reading that took account of Continental modifications of the limitation period but not UK ones would be not only nit-picking but highly non-uniform. It would represent a kind of UK exceptionalism we can well do without.

Warner v Scapa Flow Charters (Scotland) [2018] UKSC 52 was, as readers no doubt noticed as a result of the reference to the Inner House, technically a Scots decision turning on the Scots law of prescription. But it is plainly just as relevant to our own Limitation Act 1980. Happy reading.

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