However, these factors have been applied very differently in different cases. In particular, the contrasting approach taken by the courts in two recent cases has caused further confusion as to when the court will give permission to bring a claim "out of time".
In Cowan v Foreman, Mr Justice Mostyn in the Family Division refused to give permission to Mrs Cowan to bring a claim against her late husband's estate which was 17 months out of time. In the circumstances, Mr Justice Mostyn did not feel that there was justification for the delay and said that the "limit of excusable delay should be measured in weeks, or, at most, a few months". Judgment was handed down in Cowan on 25 February 2019.
Ten days later, on 7 March 2019, in the case of Bhusate v Patel, Mrs Bhusate was given permission by Chief Master Marsh, chief master in the Chancery Division, to bring a claim against her late husband's estate which was out of time by 25 years and 9 months. Chief Master Marsh took the view, in considering the factors above, that Mrs Bhusate had demonstrated compelling reasons why the court should exercise a discretion in her favour.
Both cases were decided on their own facts but this significant divergence of approach makes it difficult to extract any general principles.
It has been relatively common practice for parties to deal with the short limitation period under the Inheritance Act by way of a standstill agreement (an agreement made between the parties by which the defendants agree that they will not take the limitation point should the claim proceed out of time). In Cowan, Mr Justice Mostyn cast doubt on this practice saying, "I was told that to agree a stand-still of this nature is "common practice". If it is indeed common practice, then I suggest that it is a practice that should come to an immediate end. It is not for the parties to give away time that belongs to the court."
It is understood that the decision in Cowan may be appealed and it is hoped that this will bring some much needed clarity. Until then, whilst the law on this point remains in such a state of flux, the best advice is that, regardless of how little information is available, every effort to be made to issue a "protective" claim before the expiry of the limitation period. A stay can then be agreed to allow for a moratorium for negotiation if necessary. This has brought some criticism from practitioners who have that this suggested approach will lead to increased costs potentially in relation to claims which will not proceed.
This is an ever evolving area of law so watch this space!
Find out why leading brands in the private client industry are partnering with PCD to raise their profile, make connections and drive new business.
Find out how you can participate in the leading club for international private client advisors and unlock opportunities around the globe.