Reconsidering mistakes of law and discoverability

Samuel Beswick, a Harvard legal scholar, studies the impact a mistake of law has on the discovery of a claim.  In Under the Limit‘s first guest post, he makes a compelling argument for reconsidering how Canadian limitations law might alter its approach to mistakes of law in the discovery analysis.

Mistake of law as a basis for extending the limitation period?

Common law countries have long determined that discoverability governs limitation on actions “grounded on” mistake (as the former Alberta statute put it) or that seek “relief from the consequences of” mistake (as the English Limitation Act provides). Back when the law of unjust enrichment was thought to allow restitution only for mistakes of fact, discoverability provisions had not much to do with mistakes of law. Now that the mistake-of-law bar has been abandoned, it is apt to ask: when can a mistake of law be discovered?

In England, this problem has driven multi-billion-pound-sterling unjust enrichment litigation, spurring private law scholars and confounding courts. The answer that the English courts have given, succinctly put in FII Test Claimants v HMRC, is that:

[372] … [I]n the case of a point of law which is being actively disputed in current litigation the true position is only discoverable … when the point has been authoritatively resolved by a final court.

I have recently sought to show that England’s answer to the discoverability of mistakes of law is arbitrary, jurisprudentially strained, internally inconsistent, and effects bad policy.

What’s remarkable (albeit it hasn’t to date been remarked on) is that this doctrine is also totally contradictory to Canadian precedent on this issue. The position in Canada, summarized in Hill v Alberta, is that:

[9] … Discoverability refers to facts, not law. Error or ignorance of the law, or uncertainty of the law, does not postpone any limitation period.

In Canada, time runs on mistake-of-law claims whether or not a claimant has discovered their mistake. This causes other problems, which I have endeavoured to draw out in a recent paper.

There is, however, a middle ground between England’s “authoritative judgment” understanding of limitation on mistakes of law and Canada’s “exception” to the discoverability principle, a full account of which will be appearing in the LQR. The short answer, though, is this: mistakes as to the law should be considered discoverable once a claimant is in a position to plead them in a statement of claim. Discoverability is not about finding out one’s legal position from a court. It is about having adequate time to be able to plead one’s case to a court.