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An Analysis On The Doctrine Of Laches

Every citizen has certain rights and duties that he/she enjoys while living in a state. Legal duties being one of the most important duties to adhere to. The doctrine of laches is a maxim that helps those who are aware of their legal right, aiming to deny access to those who are negligent in filing a case in due time. It helps put a stop to the unreasonable delay in filing cases by applicants.

A defense used by the defendant; this maxim aids the defendant from not providing an equitable relief to a non-vigilant applicant. The doctrine helps put in perspective cases of torts, property, where time is of the essence. It has a thin line of difference from the Act of Limitation. The article further helps us understand, its meaning and relevance in today's time.

Meaning
The traditional meaning of the word laches is the negligence to follow one's legal duty. It is derived from the Latin word 'laxare' which is to loosen or by law. In legalese, laches means failure to assert or observe one's legal right or privilege.

The Doctrine of Laches
The doctrine in simple terms says that a plaintiff cannot seek equitable relief because the plaintiff himself has delayed the time to seek the relief. What is an equitable relief?
In civil law, the court either offers Legal remedies in the form of damages that is monetary relief or else offers equitable relief in the forms of injunctions and specific performance. The court offers an equitable relief only after weighing in the facts of the case to decide upon which relief to give. [1]

This may be a cumbersome task as courts need to further supervise the parties, to check if the injunction or specific performance is done. They need to consider various aspects of the case that helps them decide which relief would be a better fit.
The doctrine is based on the Latin maxim Vigilantibus Non Dormientius Aequitas Subventil which means that Equity aids the vigilant, not the ones who sleep over their rights. The doctrine of laches is one of the few defences available to the defendant in order to receive relief from the court on the basis that with the passage of time the defendant's case would have become weak. Loss of evidence, proper testimonials, and even witnesses can hamper the chance of getting a fair trial to the defendant.

As because of the delay in time, these essentials in a trial may get lost or out of touch. The maxim clearly states that the law would only assist those who helped the court in the speedy delivery of justice and not those who forget to assert their own rights in due time. By doing so, one is not only wasting the time of the court but also creating a sense in the world that a delay in filing a case will always be entertained in court.

Thus, this doctrine can be used by the defendant as a defense in cases where the plaintiff is seeking equitable relief and is doing so after an unreasonable amount of time. Even if the delay is for a shorter period and not as long as stipulated by any limitations in any statute if it is detrimental for the defendant's defense, this doctrine can be applied.

Example
A and B were neighbors and have been living right next to each other. One day, A starts extending his property by building a garden that encroached the land of B. B was well aware of this and never raised this issue with A. After, 15 years, B filed a case against A. In this case, by applying the doctrine of laches it will be said that B has taken an exuberant amount of time to file a case even though he was well aware of the property matters and decided to not take any action. Thus, he has slept over his rights and for this reason, the defendant can take help of the doctrine of laches.

Genesis
The development of the doctrine occurred in the Lord Chancellors Court in England. Its further development occurred in the form of the statute of limitations that are created in legal aspects of Tort, contract, property issues, etc. The traces of this doctrine are also found in US courts way back in the 1860s in cases like Stone Vs Williams, where it was held that courts, parties, and witnesses "ought to be relieved of the burden of trying stale claims when a plaintiff has slept on his rights."[2]

And in the case of Indian Courts, one of the first cases to mention the dismissal of the petition in relation to a delay was Tilokchand Motichand Vs H.B. Munshi. The judgment delivered by M. Hidayatullah, C.J. held that the aggrieved party should move the court at the earliest and explain satisfactorily the reason for delay and that courts need to take discretion from case to case.[3]

Cases
In Haryana State Handloom & Handicrafts Corpn. Ltd. And. Another VS Jain School Society, an appeal was filed to the Supreme Court in relation to the delay in filing of a writ petition in the land acquisition case. The facts of the case said that the respondents in the case had challenged a land acquisition after 22 years with a justification that they were waiting to see how the land was used.

The HC gave the order that merely because the respondents had given the State and the acquiring body, time to put the land to use for the purposes for which it was acquired, their right to file the writ petition could not be affected.[4]

However, the SC held that there was no reasoning or possible cause to restrict the respondent from filing a writ petition. And that the unreasonable delay of 22 years could have been avoided. The High Court had made an error and should have understood that the petition was filed to enhance compensation.

The Doctrine of Laches is usually used to answer cases where writ petitions and the limitation act are concerned. And how there can be no limitation set on the filing of a writ petition
A case speaking about the same is Smt.Sudama Devi VS Commissioner and others. The Supreme Court in this case held that no hard and fast rule of 90 days to impose a limitation to file a writ. And no rule of limitation can be laid down by either the High court or practice in relation to the filing of a writ. And only the circumstances of the case would be taken into account to hold anyone guilty of laches without specifying any period of limitation[5].

Citing a line from the judgment that said:
In every case, it would have to be decided on the facts and circumstances whether the petitioner is guilty of laches and that would have to be done without taking into account any specific period as a period of limitation. There may be cases where even short delay may be fatal while there may be cases where even a long delay may not be evidence of laches on the part of the petitioner[6].

Thus, showcasing how the application of the doctrine of laches is very circumstantial in nature and can only be applied in relation to the circumstances of the case.

In the case of State of Maharashtra v. Digambar, (1995) in which the respondent who was an agriculturalist in the year 1991, filed a writ petition in the Bombay High Court against the State government as they had allegedly taken his land in the course of execution of scarcity relief work in the year 1971-72 and sought compensation 20 years later. The Bombay High Court in this regard, by stating that the state being a welfare state needs to compensate the party for the deprivation of his property.

The Supreme Court in the appeal filed by the State Government set aside the order of the High Court by stating that the power of the High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution should be just and reasonable. By providing discretionary relief without evaluating the actual circumstances and the fact that the laches has not been proved. It held that the relief provided to a person filing a writ becomes unsustainable if his blameworthy conduct reading the laches or delay is not considered. [7]

Hence, this shows how crucial the doctrine of laches is to the defendant and how it is fair use is a concern to the courts.

Relevance
As mentioned above the core of the doctrine is to protect the interest of the defendant due to an unreasonable delay caused by the plaintiff in filing a case.

A major question that arises in this is How is the doctrine of laches different from The Limitation Act?
The doctrine of laches had developed over the years in order to provide relief to the defendant in cases where the plaintiff has spent way too much time in filing a suit. Over the years this developed to form what we call the Limitation Act of 1963.

However, the doctrine of laches and The Limitation Act cannot be used interchangeably and have a stark difference between each other. In cases of Limitation, only the time that has passed by is taken into consideration. And in Laches, the time that has passed as well as the reason for the delay in filing will be considered.

For example, as per the Limitation Act, in a suit against a carrier for compensation for losing or injuring goods, the limit to file a suit is 3 years from when the loss or injury occurs. After this, the plaintiff will have not to be allowed to file a suit. Where Laches, the reason behind the delay in filing the suit will be considered before making a decision. However, an underlying fact that the plaintiff has been sleeping on his rights and taking any action will be highly considered.

That is another major difference between that in Laches the fact that the person has not utilized his rights and ignored them is majorly taken into consideration but in cases of Limitation, the fact that the person has slept on his rights has little to no importance.

In Limitation Act, the Schedule defined the description of the suit and the time in which the suit can be filed but Laches goes one step further to take into account justice, fair treatment, and relevance of facts while solving the case. Thus, it can be said that the doctrine of Laches is based on the law of equity whereas Limitation is based on public policy.

Another aspect of great relevance is that in relation to the filing of writs. Article 226 and Article 32, ensure that citizens can file a writ petition in the High Court and Supreme Court respectively. Like mentioned above in the case of Haryana State Handloom & Handicrafts Corpn. Ltd. And. Another VS Jain School Society, it was said that There can be no time limit that bars an individual from filing a writ petition.

As writ petitions handle cases that assure that an individual's fundamental rights have utmost priority, an unjustified lapse in filing a case is hampering a person's frights. The court needs to ensure that it backs people that have been observant of their rights and deter those who have failed to observe them. This is done by the doctrine of laches that helps those that have been vigilant in filing cases. Fundamental Rights are the most basic and constitutional rights for each citizen.

Thus, The Doctrine of Laches holds great value for those citizens that have understood they're and hold huge relevance in today's time.

Personal Opinion
If asked about what is the fundamental job of courts? The answer would be easy, Courts, in general, have been given the duty and power to protect the rights of the individuals and provide everyone with a fair and just trial. One of the first things taught to us in Legal English was the lack of legal maxims or doctrines that were in favor of the defendant, one of them being Doctrine of Laches.

I personally believe that the delivery of justice needs to be done in time and be done with utmost fairness. It is a pre-conceived notion that it is always the defendant that is wrong as the allegation is made against him. But as a court, it is their duty to ensure to give an equitable view to both sides of the story. Thus, having doctrines like laches help ensure that both sides are heard and takes into account the fact of whose fault it has truly been. As the maxim on which the doctrine is based clearly says, aid the vigilant and not the one sleeping over their rights.

However, this has a downside in our particular country wherewith such a huge population of 1.39 billion people, it is too extreme to assume that each one of them is well aware of their legal rights. Quoting an article from The Hindu, Free legal aid, as it exists today, mainly focuses on the right to be represented by a lawyer in court. It has not been effectively extended to legal awareness programs to enable people to be aware of the law. What we are left with is a peculiar situation in which the alleged offender comes to know about the law only after he has committed the offense [8]

The writer perfectly sums up the hard-hitting reality of the position of legal awareness in our country. Very to few people know about their own rights, let alone be aware of the time duration in which they can file a suit. The lack of literacy amongst our people regarding the knowledge of when they can file a case without any help from the lawyers helps justify the delay in filing suits.

But as the doctrine of laches states that an unreasonable delay cannot be justified. The courts will take a call as per the facts and circumstances of the case and identify possible reasons behind the delay in filing the suit. I personally feel the defense regarding this point is stronger than the point that people are unaware of their rights.

Every individual after attaining reasonable sense knows that the society functions with a set of laws and rules, and by breaching any there will be a penalty. Now whether the rule is regarding tort, property, contracts, there is a common sense that if a wrong has occurred it is our duty to raise a complaint against it.

People by choosing not to file cases and letting the time pass by are wasting the time of courts by demanding justice years later. Yes, there might be genuine cases that have reasonable justification for the delay. But, in most cases, an unreasonable delay to file a case may be with the reason of gaining compensation after realizing that there is a point to contest a case. I believe the doctrine of laches is one of the few doctrines that help safeguard the dignity of the court whose sole job is to protect individuals from exploitation. The doctrine of laches helps deter people from filing cases after an extreme or even at times the limited amount of time.

As mentioned by the judgments above, that plaintiffs cannot seek relief if they have been in the wrong by not exercising their rights. Courts by giving judgments in favor of the defendant, prove that the rights enriched to people will be given utmost priority. Additionally, it will aid those who value and utilize and disfavor those who sleep over it.

In Conclusion, the doctrine of laches is an essential doctrine of constitutional law that plays a major aspect in various cases of law, be it a tort, writs, property, etc. The doctrine of laches help protects the defendants from always being the one being in the wrong, by giving them a chance to prove that it can equally be the plaintiff's fault while carrying out the suit.

End-Notes:
  1. laches. (n.d.) West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. (2008). Retrieved August 8 2021 from https://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/laches
  2. Stone v. Williams, 873 F.2d 620 (2d Cir. 1989)
  3. Tilokchand Motichand v. H.B. Munshi, (1969) 1 SCC 110 at page 116,117
  4. Haryana State Handloom & Handicrafts Corpn. Ltd. v. Jain School Society, (2003) 12 SCC 538 : 2003 SCC OnLine SC 1180
  5. Sudama Devi v. Commr., (1983) 2 SCC 1
  6. Sudama Devi v. Commr., (1983) 2 SCC 1
  7. State of Maharashtra v. Digambar, (1995) 4 SCC 683
  8. Nirmalya Chaudhuri, Towards complete legal literacy, The Hindu, January 2020, , https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/towards-complete-legal-literacy/article30479979.ece

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