A negligence claim brought by disgruntled trustees was out of time, the Supreme Court has found, ruling that the day following a midnight deadline is a ‘complete undivided day’.

In Matthew and others v Sedman and others, five Supreme Court justices were asked to clarify ‘midnight deadlines’ and to decide whether the day immediately following the stroke of midnight counts towards the calculation of a limitation period.

In judgment, Lord Stephens said that in a midnight deadline case ‘even if the cause of action accrued at the very start of the day following midnight, that day was a complete undivided day’.

‘I consider that it would impermissibly transcend practical reality if the stroke of midnight or some infinitesimal division of a second after midnight, led to the conclusion that the concept of an undivided day was no longer appropriate. In that sense this would not only be impermissible metaphysics but also, in this context, such a minimum period of time does not cross the threshold as capable of being recognised by the law,' he said. 

The appellants in the case are current trustees, who are attempting to sue the trust’s former professional trustees. The dispute arose after the respondents missed the deadline for a ‘scheme of arrangement’, following investment issues with the trust. The deadline was Thursday 2 June 2011.

The appellants started proceedings in negligence and breach of trust against the respondents by a claim form issued on Monday 5 June 2017. Under the Limitation Act 1980, actions brought in tort, contract, and breach of trust cannot be brought after the expiration of six years from the date on which the cause of action accrued.

The respondents contend that the claim was issued out of time and is therefore statute-barred. Conversely, the appellants argued that the cause of action accrued after the stroke of midnight, and that even a fraction of a second would constitute ‘part of a day’. Therefore, 3 June 2011 was to be excluded for the purposes of calculating the limitation period.

Lord Stephens concluded: ‘Whether the issue is framed in terms of metaphysics, which the common law eschews, or of the principle that the law does not concern itself with trifling matters, the conclusion is the same: realistically, there is no fraction of a day. That being so, the justification in relation to fractions of a day does not apply in a midnight deadline case.’

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the appeal.