The Prescription (Scotland) Bill 2018 should be welcomed, but the Scottish Parliament needs to ensure all obligations to pay debts arising from personal contracts and statute should be covered by short term negative prescription, with few exceptions.
Scotland’s law of prescription governs when an obligation to pay a debt is extinguished and no longer owed. This includes debts owed for credit cards and personal loans, but also debts such as council tax arrears, benefit overpayments and outstanding tax debts owed to the crown.
At present the framework for this area of law is provided for by the Prescription and Limitations (Scotland) Act 1973 (1973 Act), which the Scottish government aims to amend and clarify with the Prescription (Scotland) Bill 2018 (2018 Bill), currently at stage one in the Scottish parliamentary process.
The current framework under the 1973 Act provides that if a debt is specified in paragraph one of Schedule One of the Act, it is covered by short term negative prescription, which means the obligation to pay the debt expires after five years, unless the person owed the debt takes certain steps to protect their claim (or the debtor makes a relevant acknowledgement of it). Paragraph Two of the Schedule, then specifies which obligations are not covered by the five-year rule, whilst Schedule Three lists obligations which are never extinguished.
Where an obligation is neither covered by short-term negative prescription, or exempt from being extinguished, it is covered by long-term prescription, which means the obligation can be recovered for up to 20 years, with, as the law currently stands, that period being restarted if a creditors makes a relevant claim for the debt within that twenty year period or the debtor makes a relevant acknowledgement of it.
It was the operation of this long-term prescription rule that meant that even in 2014 some Scots still owed poll tax debts, which dated back as far as 1989, and led to the passing of the Community Charge Debt (Scotland) Act 2015 to write off the remaining debts owed.
However, as was entirely predictable, attempts by the 2018 Bill to simplify the law in this area have already been derailed, with certain statutory creditors arguing their debts are different and in need of special treatment. So, in section three of the 2018 Act, a new provision that aims to include all statutory obligations to pay a debt into the five-year rules, unless provided for elsewhere, has now led to several provisions which provide otherwise elsewhere.
This includes debts owed for council tax, non-domestic rates, benefit overpayments (under UK legislation) and tax debts owed to the crown.
The Scottish Parliament should resist these attempts to protect the “special interests” of certain statutory creditors, with a view to preserving the overall principle that all debts, with few exceptions, that arise from personal contracts or statute should be covered by the five year rule and creditors, who wish to protect their claim, should be required to take certain steps to do so.
This could easily be achieved in relation to debts for council tax, non-domestic rates, and crown tax debts by extending sub-paragraph (a) of paragraph two of Schedule One of the 1973 Act to include debts legally constituted by decrees or documents of debt. This provision currently states the five-year rule does not cover obligations if they relate to an obligation to comply with a decree of court, an arbitration award or an order of a tribunal or authority exercising jurisdiction under any enactment. By extending it to include decrees and documents of debts, this would mean debts that are constituted by summary warrants, which all local authorities and HMRC have the power to issue for the above debts, and regularly do so, would be covered by long-term negative prescription. It would also mean in future, where new statutory obligations are created, and there is a wish to allow the statutory creditors to protect their claim easily, it would not be necessary to further amend the 1973 Act, but instead to allow for a means of recovery that allows the summary warrant procedure to be utilised.
In relation to benefit overpayments, however, that are owed to HMRC and the Department of Works and Pensions, the Scottish government should bring forward rules to provide that UK benefit overpayments, owed under the Social Security Administration Act 1992 and the Tax Credits Act 2002, are expressly included into the five-year rule. This would ensure all UK benefit debts are treated the same as Scottish benefit overpayments, which because of section 38 of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill 2017, will be covered by short-term negative prescription. It makes no sense that debts which are essentially the same in nature, should be covered by different prescription rules, simply because the source of the debt is UK legislation, rather than Scottish legislation.
Equally, however, if the purpose of section 38 the Social Security (Scotland) Bill 2017 is to provide a short recovery period for benefit overpayments, it may be necessary to further restrict sub-paragraph (a), of paragraph two of Schedule one of the 1973 Act. The reason being is that it makes clear that debts that are constituted by a tribunal or authority exercising jurisdiction under any enactment are not covered by the five-year rule: this could include both benefit UK and Scottish benefit overpayments. Also, it may wish to consider whether the running of short-term negative prescription for these types of debt can be interrupted by claimants making relevant acknowledgements of the debt, such as in making payments towards them. The reason being most benefit overpayments are recovered by direct deductions from existing awards of benefits, meaning every payment constitutes a relevant acknowledgement of the debt and the five-year prescription period begins running again. Most people will, therefore, clearly still be paying back benefit overpayments, long after the expiry of five years.
Bill to be Welcomed
However, the new Prescription (Scotland) Billis to be welcomed. For many years, because of the omissions in the 1973 Act, it was not even clear if HMRC tax debts could be extinguished.
Also, section 6 in the 2018 Bill makes it clear it will no longer be possible for long-term prescription to be interrupted by a creditor making a relevant claim or the debtor making a relevant acknowledgment, meaning a repeat of the problems that arose with poll tax should no longer arise, with debts still be being owed long after the expiry of twenty years.
Also, section 14 of the 2018 Bill also introduces into the 1973 Act a new burden of proof on creditors who are pursuing a debt through the courts, to show, where a question arises, whether that debt is prescribed or not. With the increasing use of litigation by debt purchasers to protect claims for distressed debts, this will hopefully help stamp out the practice of them obtaining decrees for extinguished obligations.
Long term Prescription – Is it too Long?
However, the question does need to be asked, with the similar law in other parts of the UK being governed by the Limitations Act 1980and the prescriptive periods being six and 12 years, is the long-term negative prescription period in Scotland too long? There appears little reason it should be possible for debtors in Scotland to be pursued for the same types of debts, owed to the same organisations, for almost double the duration of debtors elsewhere in the UK. Arguably, a shorter period of long-term negative prescription of 10 or 15 years should now be adopted.