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Civil action in child abuse cases

Debate on removing the three year time bar to seeking justice.

Parliament will today debate Stage 1 of the bill to remove the three year time limit on survivors of childhood abuse seeking civil damages in court.

The Limitation (Childhood Abuse) (Scotland) Bill will, if enacted, remove that time limit (also known as the ‘time bar’) for any cases arising from abuse on or after 26 September 1964.

This radical reform is part of the Scottish Government’s wider commitment to people abused as children and to fulfil the recommendations of the Scottish Human Rights Commission InterAction consultation and action plan.

Minister for Community Safety & Legal Affairs, Annabelle Ewing, said:

“Survivors of childhood abuse have worked with the Scottish Human Rights Commission on acknowledgement and accountability for survivors. Removing the three year limit on seeking civil damages was one of their top priorities, and I am delighted to be guiding through Parliament legislation that will not only allow survivors’ voices to be heard, but also help them address the wrongs done to them.

“It is important for all of society, not least the justice system, to recognise the reasons why people do not come forward to tell of the harm done to them until many years later. We must remove barriers to survivors pursuing civil damages. That is why we are removing the current three year limitation period in these cases. That is also why the bill will enable cases which have been unsuccessful because of the current rules on time bar to be brought to court again and enable the widest possible circumstances of abuse to be considered.  

“I welcome the Justice Committee’s support for the general principles of the Bill and recognition of the importance of removing a barrier which has proved insurmountable for so many survivors.

“This Bill is about access to justice. It is about acknowledging the unique position of survivors of childhood abuse as children who were betrayed by those they should have been able to trust – recognising the abhorrent nature of the abuse, the vulnerability of the child at the time, and the profound impact of abuse; an impact which lasts well into adulthood and which, itself, prevents people from coming forward.

“We will continue to do all that we can, to listen to survivors of childhood abuse, to provide the support they tell us they need and to right the wrongs done to them.”


The current law requires anyone who wishes to raise a personal injury action for damages to do so generally within three years of the date on which the injuries were sustained. In practice, this means a survivor of child abuse who wants to raise a civil action is usually required to do so by the date of their 19th birthday (three years after they reach the age of 16).

The Bill, which would amend the Prescription and Limitation (Scotland) Act 1973, will apply to cases of child abuse irrespective of the setting in which the abuse took place. It removes the current three year time bar for such cases. It also sets out circumstances in which court cases can be raised again where, due to time bar, they did not succeed previously .

The Bill goes further than other jurisdictions by including sexual, physical and emotional abuse while other similar legislation has been limited to only sexual abuse or has only included emotional abuse which is connected to other forms of abuse.  

The Bill does not change the law of prescription which has generally extinguished the right to raise an action for abuse that took place prior to 26 September 1964. Unlike the three year limitation period, which operates as a procedural bar to a claim proceeding, these claims were extinguished; and, in light of this, and the age of the claims involved, the Scottish Government does not consider that these can now be revived.

The removal of time bar was one of the Scottish Government commitments in response to the InterAction consultation with survivors given in October 2014. Other commitments included: £13.5 million to establish an In Care Survivor Support Fund to provide immediate support and practical assistance, and an additional £1 million to enhance services for all adult survivors of child abuse; a commemoration; consideration of an apology law (taken forward in the Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016); making the National Confidential Forum reports part of the national record; and establishing a Public Inquiry into the abuse of children in care.

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