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: