Recent news stories tell of some Americans who had sued Iran in the U.S. for harm arising from Iranian-sponsored terrorism, and who were able to enforce their judgments against a house in Toronto and building in Ottawa. The American judgments are all six more years old, but the Americans did not start proceedings to enforce them until 2013 or 2014. Subject to a few exceptions, the limitation period in Ontario is two years. How were they able to get around that?
There is no limitation period for enforcing a domestic judgment, but there is uncertainty as to whether that applies to foreign judgments too. I would have welcomed a ruling on this issue, which I explain a bit more below. Unfortunately the Court that enforced those American judgments – the Superior Court of Justice in Tracy v. Iranian Ministry of Information and Security  O.J. No. 3042 -- did not delve into that.
The enforcement proceedings were not statute-barred because they were commenced under two years from when Canada enacted the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act (“JVTA”) and amended the State Immunity Act (“SIA”), both done in 2012. Before then, the Islamic Republic of Iran (“Iran”) was immune from suit. The amendment to the SIA meant that countries on a certain list of countries believed to be supporters of terrorism are not immune from suit for support of terrorism occurring on or after Jan. 1, 1985. Iran is on that list.
The JVTA gives victims of terrorism a cause of action against foreign states that support terrorism, for loss or damage suffered on or after Jan. 1, 1985, caused by acts or omissions which if committed in Canada would be punishable under Part II.1 (Terrorism) of the Criminal Code. The JVTA also provides that Canadian courts must recognize an otherwise enforceable foreign judgment granted in respect of such loss or damage, even against a foreign state, if that state is on the list of states believed to support terrorism.
The Americans’ claims are statutory claims under the JVTA. In Peixiero v. Huberman  3 S.C.R. 549at para 44, the Supreme Court of Canada held that there can be no cause of action until the plaintiff’s injury meets all the statutory criteria. The Americans had no cause of action until the JVTA was enacted and Iran’s immunity was removed. They brought their proceedings to enforce the American judgments a year later, in March 2013.
The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled in in Lax v Lax, (2004) 70O.R. (3d) 520 that the provision in the Limitations Act (the statute that precedes the Limitation Act, 2002) which exempts enforcement of judgments from the limitation period does not apply to foreign judgments. The current legislation does not clarify the matter. The Superior Court of Justice, in Commission de la Construction du Quebec v Access Rigging, 2010 ONSC 5897 interpreted the current statute find the limitation period does apply.
However, more recent decisions have cast doubt on those rulings. The Superior Court in PT ATPK Resources TBK v, Diversified Energy and Resource 2013 ONSC 5913, held there was no reason to treat foreign judgments differently from domestic judgments. The following year the Ontario Court of Appeal in SA Horeca Financial v Light 2014 ONCA 811, arguably in obiter, implicitly agreed with the PT ATPK ruling.