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Does A Motor Accident Claim Disqualify Indigent Status?

Whether a person who is entitled to receive compensation by way of a claim before the Motor Accident Claim Tribunal can be said to have given up its status as an indigent person by virtue of the amount?

The article discusses a recent Supreme Court judgement dated May 27, 2024, which addressed whether a claimant entitled to compensation from a Motor Accident Claims Tribunal loses their indigent status by virtue of the compensation awarded. The case involved a claimant, injured in a road accident, who was initially awarded a partial compensation by the tribunal. Dissatisfied, she appealed to the Gujarat High Court to file as an indigent person but was denied based on the compensation awarded, which she had not yet received.

The Supreme Court, citing precedents and emphasizing the importance of access to justice, overturned the High Court's decision, allowing the claimant to appeal as an indigent person. The court highlighted that the claimant's indigent status remained until actual receipt of compensation and underscored the necessity for proper inquiry by appellate courts under CPC provisions. The Supreme Court directed the Gujarat High Court to expedite the appeal process, reinforcing the principle that financial inability should not hinder access to justice.

Reminding of what justice Krishna Iyer j. has observed in State of Haryana v. Darshan devi "The poor shall not be priced out of the Justice market by insistence on court-fee and refusal to apply the exemptive provisions of Order 33, CPC" .the supreme court in a recent judgement dated 27th May 2024 considered whether a person who is entitled to receive compensation by way of a claim before the Motor Accident Claim Tribunal can be said to have given up its status as an indigent person by virtue of the amount slated to be received.

Meaning of "Indigent Person"
Order 33 of cpc deals with the suits by indigent persons. Any person is indigent:
  1. When he not possessed of sufficient means, other than the property exempt from attachment by a decree, enabling him to pay the fee prescribed by the law for the plaint in such case.
  2. Where no such fee is prescribed, when he is not entitled to property worth 1000 rupees other than the property exempt.
It provides for exemption from court fees to persons who are classified as indigent, who are also called by the inappropriate name of "paupers".

Facts of the case
In the present scenario the claimant was hit by a truck while she was riding pillion on a bike. The accident resulted in her sustaining injuries making her undergo plastic surgery. She was earning Rs.3000/- per month but the accident sustained her permanent disablement, making her not able to work thereafter. A claim was filed by her for compensation amounting to Rs.10 lakhs with 18% interest.

The tribunal vide award dated 17th October 2016, awarded a compensation of Rs.2,41,745 with 9% interest from the date of claim petition to the date of realization, dissatisfied by which the appellant approached the high court of Gujrat by way of regular first appeal No.2611/2017. Misc. Civil Application No.3/2018

The High Court by order dated 7tth August, 2018 dismissed the Misc.Civil Application observing as under:

"It is a matter of record that the claimants filed claim petition before the Tribunal and claimed Rs.10,00,000/-, whereby the Tribunal by partly allowing the claim petition vide the impugned award, awarded a sum of Rs,2,41,745/- along with 9% interest from the date of claim petition till its realization. In light of the aforesaid, the applicant- appellant cannot be considered to be indigent person and therefore, he has to pay court fees first. Ms. Rana, learned counsel for the applicant, however, submits that, till date, no amount is received by the applicant. It is open for the applicant to pursue the said remedy before appropriate forum. In view of the above, present application is not entertained. Time to deposit Court fees is granted for 8 weeks from today."

Supreme Courts stand on the case
The supreme Court in deciding the case referred to various precedent including Mathai M. Paikeday v. C.K Antony, wherein the concept of an indigent person has been discussed at length. The court also referred to R.V. Dev v. Chief Secretary, Govt. of Kerala in para 8 whereof it was observed: "When an application is filed by a person said to be indigent, certain factors for considering as to whether he is so within the meaning of the said provision are required to be taken into consideration therefor. A person who is permitted to sue as an indigent person is liable to pay the court fees which would have been paid by him if he was not permitted to sue in that capacity, if he fails in the suit at the trial or without trial. Payment of court fees as the scheme suggests is merely deferred. It is not altogether wiped off."

The court emphasized that the intent of Orders XXXIII and XLIV is unmistakable. "They exemplify the cherished principle that lack of monetary capability does not preclude a person from knocking on the doors of the Court to seek vindication of his rights."

The appellant application to file the appeal as an indigent person was rejected on the ground that she had already received the award of the tribunal, and therefore she was not indigent anymore, and hence she was required to pay the court fee. The supreme Court bench of justice J.K. Maheshwari and Justice Sanjay Karol differed with the single judge bench of the High Court.

The court emphasized on the need to expand the jurisprudence of access to justice as an essential component of social justice. It also emphasizes the need to scrutinize the constitutionality of the court-fee levy as a facet of human rights highlighted in our Nation's constitution. "If the State itself should travesty this basic principle, in the teeth of Articles 14 and 39-A, where an indigent widow is involved, a second look at its policy is overdue. The Court must give the benefit of doubt against levy of a price to enter the temple of justice until one day the whole issue of the validity of profitmaking through sale of civil justice, disguised as court-fee, is fully reviewed by this Court."

The learned single judge of High Court reasoned that the claimant-appellant's application on to file as an indigent person cannot be sustained on the ground that she had already received compensation by way of an award by the tribunal due to which she was no longer indigent. The supreme court found this verdict to be belied by the impugned order itself as the learned single judge has recorded the submission of the council for claimant-appellant that no money has been paid to her yet. So even though she had been awarded a sum, her indigency was not extinguished thereby. the court found the impugned order of the Honorable High Court to be incorrect in dismissing the Misc. Application.

There is another ground on which the Court found the Honorable High Court to have erred. The orders XXXIII and XLIV of CPC regarding the deferral of payment of court fee as noted in Khader International, states that if a suit filed by an indigent person is successful, the court fee will be deducted from the awarded amount, treating the person as if they had not filed the suit as an indigent.

Order XLIV Rule 3(2) provides as under:
3. Inquiry as to whether applicant is an indigent person:
  1. ......
  2. Where the applicant, referred to in rule 11, is alleged to have become an indigent person since the date of the decree appealed from, the inquiry into the question whether or not he is an indigent person shall be made by the Appellate Court or, under the orders of the Appellate Court, by an officer of that Court unless the Appellate Court considers it necessary in the circumstances of the case that the inquiry should be held by the Court from whose decision the appeal is preferred.
The appellate court did not conduct any inquiry which was necessitated since nothing on record speaks of the claimant-appellant having filed the claim before the tribunal as an indigent person.

"On both counts, one, that she had not yet received the money and, therefore, at the time of filing the appeal she was arguably indigent; and second, that the statutory requirement under the C.P.C., as described above, was not met - the order of the learned Single Judge has to be set aside.," the court concluded

The court however instead of remanding the matter back to the High Court for an inquiry as per order XLIV, considering the time that has passed since the impugned order in the first appeal, the court allowed the appellant to appeal as an indigent person. Considering the facts of this case the court requested the honorable high court of Gujrat that the appeal filled by the claimant-appellant be decided expeditiously and preferably within six months from the date of receipt of the copy of this judgement.

The supreme court underscored the fundamental principle that access to justice shall not be hindered due to financial constraints. The decision highlighted the court's commitment to ensuring that economic barriers do not prevent individual from knocking the doors of justice, paving way for further development towards the goal envisaged in Article 39A of the Indian Constitution.

End Notes:
  • Alifiya Husenbhai Keshariya V. Siddiq Ismail Sindhi & Ors S.L.P. (C) No. 729/2020.
  • Order 33 of cpc.
  • S.L.P. (C) No. 9544 of 2009.
  • Orders XXXIII and XLIV
  • Article 14
  • Article 39-A

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