Law of Limitation; Principles & Top 8 Supreme Court Judgments

Law of Limitation; Principles & Top 8 Supreme Court Judgments

The mandate of Section 5 of the Limitation Act 1963 is that if a Court is satisfied about the applicant having sufficient cause for not preferring the appeal or any other application, the delay may be condoned.

Section 5 of the Limitation Act reads as hereunder:-

“5 Extension of prescribed period in certain cases–Any appeal or any application, other than an application under any of the provisions of Order XXI of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (5 of 1908), may be admitted after the prescribed period, if the appellant or the applicant satisfies the court that he had sufficient cause for not preferring the appeal or making the application within such period.

Explanation–The fact that the appellant or the applicant was misled by any order, practice or judgment of the High Court in ascertaining or computing the prescribed period may be sufficient cause within the meaning of this section.”

The law of limitation, is based on the legal maxim “Interest Reipubulicae Ut Sit Finis Litium” which means that it is for the general welfare that a period be put to litigation.

If legal remedy is kept alive beyond the legislatively fixed period of time, it only generates dissatisfaction.

The parties cannot be allowed to have an unbridled and unfettered free play in matters of timing of approaching the Court.

The Courts, as held by the Supreme Court, must keep in mind, while dealing with the limitation petition, that there is a distinction between the delay for a plausible reason and delay because of inaction or negligence which deprives a party of the protection of Section 5 of the Limitation Act, 1963.

# Principles regarding the law of limitation

The Supreme Court has, on number of occasions opined that the expression “sufficient cause” ought to be interpreted in a manner which subserves the cause of justice for which the institutions of justicing stand for.

When a case with arguable points is shut out on prescriptions of limitation, it results in throwing out a good case at the threshold with the only necessary implication of injustice being perpetuated and justice being defeated.

The expression “sufficient cause” cannot be interpreted in an iron frame.

The expression “sufficient cause”, in the words of the Supreme Court, is sufficiently elastic for the purposes of a meaningful interpretation.

A serious note of caution has been sounded by Supreme Court against any pedantic or hyper technical approach in dealing with limitation petitions, more so, when stakes are high and there is availability of arguable points of law.

A Court cannot turn away its gaze from the fact that no litigant benefits by approaching the Court late.

Without any good reason, nobody would like to have his claim extinguished and more often than not, any good reason would dovetail into sufficient reason for approaching the Court after the period of limitation.

1. Ramlal vs. Rewa Coalfields Ltd., AIR 1962 SC 361

The Supreme Court, while interpreting Section 5 of the Limitation Act, laid down the following proposition:

  • In construing Section 5 (of the Limitation Act), it is relevant to bear in mind two important considerations.
  • The first consideration is that the expiration of the period of limitation prescribed for making an appeal gives rise to a right in favour of the decree-holder to treat the decree as binding between the parties.
  • In other words, when the period of limitation prescribed has expired, the decree-holder has obtained a benefit under the law of limitation to treat the decree as beyond challenge, and this legal right which has accrued to the decree- holder by lapse of time should not be light-heartedly disturbed.
  • The other consideration which cannot be ignored is that if sufficient cause for excusing delay is shown, discretion is given to the court to condone delay and admit the appeal.
  • This discretion has been deliberately conferred on the court in order that judicial power and discretion in that behalf should be exercised to advance substantial justice.

2. Collector, Land Acquisition, Anantnag v. Mst. Katiji, (1987) SCC 107

The Supreme Court made a significant departure from the earlier judgments and observed:

  • The legislature has conferred the power to condone delay by enacting Section 5 of the Indian Limitation Act of 1963 in order to enable the courts to do substantial justice to parties by disposing of matters on “merits”.
  • The expression “sufficient cause” employed by the legislature is adequately elastic to enable the courts to apply the law in a meaningful manner which subserves the ends of justice-that being the life-purpose for the existence of the institution of courts.
  • It is common knowledge that this Court has been making a justifiably liberal approach in matters instituted in this Court.
  • But the message does not appear to have percolated down to all the other courts in the hierarchy.

And such a liberal approach is adopted on principle as it is realized that:

  • 1. Ordinarily a litigant does not stand to benefit by lodging an appeal late.
  • 2. Refusing to condone delay can result in a meritorious matter being thrown out at the very threshold and cause of justice being defeated. As against this when delay is condoned the highest that can happen is that a cause would be decided on merits after hearing the parties.
  • 3. “Every day’s delay must be explained” does not mean that a pedantic approach should be made. Why not every hour’s delay, every second’s delay? The doctrine must be applied in a rational common sense pragmatic manner.
  • 4. When substantial justice and technical considerations are pitted against each other, cause of substantial justice deserves to be preferred for the other side cannot claim to have vested right in injustice being done because of a non-deliberate delay.
  • 5. There is no presumption that delay is occasioned deliberately, or on account of culpable negligence, or on account of mala fides. A litigant does not stand to benefit by resorting to delay. In fact he runs a serious risk.
  • 6. It must be grasped that judiciary is respected not on account of its power to legalize injustice on technical grounds but because it is capable of removing injustice and is expected to do so.

Making a justice-oriented approach from this perspective, there was sufficient cause for condoning the delay in the institution of the appeal.

State and Condonation of Day

The fact that it was the “State” which was seeking condonation and not a private party was altogether irrelevant.

The doctrine of equality before law demands that all litigants, including the State as a litigant, are accorded the same treatment and the law is administered in an even- handed manner.

There is no warrant for according a step-motherly treatment when the “State” is the applicant praying for condonation of delay.

In fact experience shows that on account of an impersonal machinery (no one in charge of the matter is directly hit or hurt by the judgment sought to be subjected to appeal) and the inherited bureaucratic methodology imbued with the note- making, file-pushing and passing-on-the-buck ethos, delay on its part is less difficult to understand though more difficult to approve.

In any event, the State which represents the collective cause of the community, does not deserve a litigant-non-grata status.

The courts therefore have to be informed with the spirit and philosophy of the provision in the course of the interpretation of the expression “sufficient cause”.

3. N. Balakrishnan v. M. Krishnamurthy, (1998) 7 SCC 123

The Supreme Court expanded the scope and ambit of law of limitation and elucidated as follows:

  • It is axiomatic that condonation of delay is a matter of discretion of the court.
  • Section 5 of the Limitation Act does not say that such discretion can be exercised only if the delay is within a certain limit.
  • Length of delay is no matter, acceptability of the explanation is the only criterion.
  • Sometimes delay of the shortest range may be uncondonable due to a want of acceptable explanation whereas in certain other cases, delay of a very long range can be condoned as the explanation thereof is satisfactory.
  • Once the court accepts the explanation as sufficient, it is the result of positive exercise of discretion and normally the superior court should not disturb such finding, much less in revisional jurisdiction, unless the exercise of discretion was on wholly untenable grounds or arbitrary or perverse.
  • But it is a different matter when the first court refuses to condone the delay.
  • In such cases, the superior court would be free to consider the cause shown for the delay afresh and it is open to such superior court to come to its own finding even untrammelled by the conclusion of the lower court.

Rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the rights of parties. They are meant to see that parties do not resort to dilatory tactics, but seek their remedy promptly.

The object of providing a legal remedy is to repair the damage caused by reason of legal injury. The law of limitation fixes a lifespan for such legal remedy for the redress of the legal injury so suffered.

Time is precious and wasted time would never revisit. During the efflux of time, newer causes would sprout up necessitating newer persons to seek legal remedy by approaching the courts. So a lifespan must be fixed for each remedy.

Unending period for launching the remedy may lead to unending uncertainty and consequential anarchy. The law of limitation is thus founded on public policy.

It is enshrined in the maxim interest reipublicae up sit finis litium (it is for the general welfare that a period be put to litigation).

Rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the rights of the parties. They are meant to see that parties do not resort to dilatory tactics but seek their remedy promptly. The idea is that every legal remedy must be kept alive for a legislatively fixed period of time.

It must be remembered that in every case of delay, there can be some lapse on the part of the litigant concerned. That alone is not enough to turn down his plea and to shut the door against him.

If the explanation does not smack of mala fides or it is not put forth as part of a dilatory strategy, the court must show utmost consideration to the suitor.

But when there is reasonable ground to think that the delay was occasioned by the party deliberately to gain time, then the court should lean against acceptance of the explanation.

While condoning the delay, the court should not forget the opposite party altogether. It must be borne in mind that he is a loser and he too would have incurred quite large litigation expenses.

It would be a salutary guideline that when courts condone the delay due to latches on the part of the applicant, the court shall compensate the opposite party for his loss.

4. P.K. Ramachandran v. State of Kerala, (1997) 7 SCC 556

The Supreme Court while reversing the order passed by High Court which had condoned 565 days delay in filing an appeal by the State against the decree of the Sub- Court in an arbitration application, observed that the law of limitation may harshly affect a particular party but it has to be applied with all its rigour when the statute so prescribes and the Courts have no power to extend the period of limitation on equitable grounds.

5. State of Nagaland v. Lipok AO, AIR 2005 SC 2191

The Supreme Court has observed that justice-oriented approach should be adopted. Unless a pragmatic view is taken, injustice is bound to occur.

# Delay in Land Acquisition Matters

In matters of land acquisition where the land is compulsorily acquired, different approach has to be taken. The land losers cannot be deprived of the reasonable compensation for their lands. If other situated land owners are given the higher compensating, there is no reason to pay lesser amount to a land loser under any circumstance.

6. Imrant Lal vs. Collector (LA): (2014) 14 SCC 133

In this context, it would be relevant to quote the following observations from the above judgment:

  • We can take judicial notice of the fact that villagers in our country are by and large illiterate and are not conversant with the intricacies of law.
  • They are usually guided by their co-villagers, who are familiar with the proceedings in the courts or the advocates with whom they get in touch for redressal of their grievance.
  • Affidavits filed in support of the applications for condonation of delay are usually drafted by the advocates on the basis of half-baked information made available by the affected persons.
  • Therefore, in the acquisition matters involving claim for award of just compensation, the court should adopt a liberal approach and either grant time to the party to file better affidavit to explain delay or suo motu take cognizance of the fact that large number of other similarly situated persons who were affected by the determination of compensation by the Land Acquisition Officer or the Reference Court have been granted relief.

7. Samiyathal v. Tahsildar [C.A. No. 5335 of 2013, Dated 5-7-2013 (SC)]

Apex Court took cognizance of the fact that many landowners may not have been able to seek intervention of the Court for grant of enhanced compensation due to illiteracy, poverty and ignorance and issued direction that those who have not filed special leave petition should be given enhanced compensation.

Time has come today where no unnecessary indulgence is required to be shown to any litigant in general. It only delays of the conclusion of the proceedings between two set of parties and validates and ratifies the inaction or want of bonafide or negligence on the part of the litigant in approaching the court late.

8. Basawaraj & Anr vs. Special Land Acquisition Officer, AIR 2014 SC 746

The Supreme Court has gone on to state that equity is not a ground to extend the limitation period by condoning the delay if there is no “sufficient cause”. The reason assigned by the Supreme Court is that an unlimited period of litigation would have an impact of rendering a sense of insecurity and uncertainty, depriving a successful party of enjoying the fruits of litigation as finality to a judgment is postponed.

See Also : Vijay Saluja Vs. Union of India {Delhi High Court, 30 Apr 2016}


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