Three years ago I did some building work as a subcontractor for a sizable building company. The work I did was a small component of a larger business complex. Every time I asked the building company for payment they said that they’ll pay me when their client pays them. This was one of those projects where anything that could go wrong did, so the project went way over time and budget. When it was finally finished, last year, I sent them a letter asking for payment. They sent a letter back apologising for the delay, explaining that the payment delay was because of unexpected costs in their project, but that they’re committed to paying it, and would I accept monthly payments. Of course, I said yes – I was just happy to finally see some progress with the payment. But after that, I got nothing but excuses. Last week I sent them a strong letter saying that if they didn’t pay then the next communication would be from my lawyers. They sent me an email saying go for it – I’ve got nothing on them – my claim has expired because it’s more than three years old. Is this true?
Ordinarily, a claim prescribes, or expires, after three years. (There are a few exceptions to this rule, eg. mortgage bonds are longer.) Once the three years is up you no longer have a valid claim and the debtor can raise prescription, which will stop your case in its tracks. However, the prescription is interrupted if the debtor admits that they owe the debt. In your case, it seems that the letter that the building company sent you (confirming the amount is payable and offering payment in installments) may be an acknowledgment of their debt, in which case prescription was interrupted and you should be able to proceed with a legal claim. Your best course of action in this scenario is to make an appointment with an attorney and take all your supporting documentation to the consultation, including the letter from last year. There’s a good chance that you can still issue your summons against the building company.