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Condonation of Delay and Sufficient Cause under the Limitation Act

The Limitation Act (hereinafter referred to as the Act) provides different time periods within which an aggrieved person is permitted to bring his actionable claim to the courts. The main objective of the Act is to put an end to litigation. The origins can be traced back to public policy i.e. fixing a timespan of a legal remedy for the greater good.

In the case of N. Balakrishnan v. M. Krishnamurty (1998) 7 SCC 123, the Court held that rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the substantive rights of parties. They exist to ensure parties do not resort to dilatory tactics and seek their remedy promptly.

Section 5 of the Act pertains to condonation of delay wherein an extension may be granted by the courts if a party is able to satisfy that they had sufficient cause for not preferring an appeal or making an application within a period. Hence, burden of proof is on the party seeking condonation.

In the case of Collector (LA) v. Katiji (1987) 2 SCC 107, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that the courts have been conferred the power to condone delay by the legislature through Section 5 of the Act. The intent of Section 5 is to help courts in achieving substantial justice to parties. The Court further explains that the expression ‘sufficient cause' in Section 5 is flexible enough to enable courts to apply the law in a meaningful manner which meets the ends of justice.

Later, the Supreme Court in the case of Esha Bhattacharjee v. Raghunathpur Nafar Academy (2013) 12 SCC 649 reiterated the principles applicable to an application for condonation of delay. The Court stressed that there should be a liberal (so as to encapsulate the conception of reasonableness), pragmatic, justice-oriented approach. The expression ‘sufficient cause' as it appears in the Act, must be interpreted and understood in the proper spirit as these terms are elastic enough to be applied liberally in the interest of justice.

The intent of the Act is to promote substantial justice which is paramount and pivotal and that technical considerations should not be given undue and uncalled emphasis. If there is gross negligence or lack of bona fides, courts must be mindful of that while considering an application for condoning delay.

In the case of Maniben Devraj Shah v. Municipal Corporation of Mumbai (2012) 5 SCC 157, the Court made a distinction between an inordinate delay and a delay which is of a few days. The Court held that in the former, the consideration of prejudice is a relevant factor and in the latter case, no such consideration arises.

In the case of M/s. Super Metal, Faridabad v. State of Haryana, VATAP No. 27 of 2013 (O&M), the test under Section 5 of the Act was held to be a purely individualistic test and not an objective one. The Court further held that since the expression ‘sufficient cause' is undefined, the Courts are left with a well-intentioned discretion to decide its meaning on a case to case basis.

 It is important to note that the period of delay is not a decisive factor in determining an application of condonation of delay. The important aspect to consider for an application condoning delay is how delay of each day is explained. For instance, in the case of Lanka Venkateswarlu v. State of A.P. (2011) 4 SCC 363, the Court overruled the judgement of the High Court for condoning a delay of 883 days as the explanation provided by the Respondents was not sufficient to condone the delay. The Supreme Court judgement was also very critical of the remarks made by the High Court about delay being caused by inefficiency and ineptitude of Government Pleaders.

While being extremely critical of the laidback attitude of the government, the High Court surprisingly condones the delay on part of the Government even when there is evident negligence. The Supreme Court further held that Section 5 of the Act does not bestow unlimited and unbridled discretionary powers on the courts.

Every discretionary power has to be exercised reasonably and within a well-established framework of principles. Similarly, in the Maniben Devraj case (Supra), the Supreme Court overruled the High Court's judgement of condoning a delay of more than 2555 days (or 7 years) and held that the discretion was wrongly exercised by the High Court. The Supreme Court also observes that doctrine of equality demands that all litigants are treated equally and that whether an application for condoning delay is filed by a private person or a state body will have no bearing on the outcome.

However, in the same judgement, the Court also states that wherever State or its agencies/instrumentalities are involved, courts can take note that sufficient time can be taken in the decision making process.

Furthermore, in the case of Nagaland v. Lipok (2005) 3 SCC 752, the Supreme Court held that certain amount of latitude is permissible having regard to the considerable delay of procedural red tape in the decision making process of the government, making the distinction between an individual seeking condonation of delay versus a State agency/body.

Keeping these judicial precedents in mind, it can be inferred that the discretion given to the courts by virtue of Section 5 is wide enough to contain all bona fide claims of parties when it comes to condoning delay. Apart from a certain level of inequality when it comes to giving leeway to government bodies (as seen in the above cases of Lanka Venkateswarlu and the case of Lipok, where the courts have explicitly stated this), the condonation has to be within the contours established by the courts in various cases as enunciated above.

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