STATE (NCT OF DELHI) VS AHMED JAAN. AUGUST 12, 2008
Limitation Act, 1963: s. 5 - Condonation of delay - "sufficient cause" –
HELD: It is sufficiency of the cause which counts, and not length of delay - Expression "sufficient cause" should receive a liberal construction - As regards delay on the part of State, certain amount of latitude is not impermissible - Expression "sufficient cause" should be considered with pragmatism in justice oriented approach rather than technical detection of sufficient cause for explaining every day's delay - Matter remitted to High Court to decide the criminal revision on merits - Suggestions made to prevent delay in State litigation - Administration of justice –
Allowing the appeal, the Supreme Court HELD:
The proof by sufficient cause is a condition precedent for exercise of the extraordinary discretion vested in the court. What counts is not the length of the delay but the sufficiency of the cause; and shortness of the delay is one of the circumstances to be taken into account in using the discretion. What constitutes sufficient cause cannot be laid down by hard and fast rules. The expression "sufficient cause" should receive a liberal construction.
No separate standards to determine the cause laid by the State vis-a-vis private litigant could be laid to prove strict standards of sufficient cause. Equally, the State cannot be put on the same footing as an individual. The individual would always be quick in taking the decision whether he would pursue the remedy by way of an appeal or application since he is a person legally injured while State is an impersonal machinery working through its officers or servants. It is axiomatic that decisions are taken by officers/agencies proverbially at slow pace encumbered with procedural red-tape in decision making process. Therefore, certain amount of latitude is not impermissible. If the appeals brought by the State are lost for such default no person is individually affected but what in the ultimate analysis suffers, is public interest. The expression "sufficient cause" should, therefore, be considered with pragmatism in justice-oriented approach rather than the technical detection of sufficient cause for explaining every day's delay. The factors which are peculiar to and characteristic of the functioning of the governmental conditions would be cognizant to and require adoption of pragmatic approach in justice-oriented process. The court should decide the matters on merits unless the case is hopelessly without merit.
The Government at appropriate level should constitute legal cells to examine the cases whether any legal principles are involved for decision by the courts or whether cases require adjustment; and should authorise the officers to take a decision or give appropriate permission for settlement. In the event of decision to file appeal, needed prompt action should be pursued by the officer concerned and he should be made personally responsible for lapses, if any.
In N. Balakrishnan v. M. Krishnamurthy (AIR 1998 SC 3222) it was held by Supreme Court that Section 5 is to be construed liberally so as to do substantial justice to the parties. The provision contemplates that the Court has to go in the position of the person concerned and to find out if the delay can be said to have been resulted from the cause which he had adduced and whether the cause can be recorded in the peculiar circumstances of the case is sufficient. Although no special indulgence can be shown to the Government which, in similar circumstances, is not shown to an individual suitor, one cannot but take a practical view of the working of the Government without being unduly indulgent to the slow motion of its wheels.
What constitutes sufficient cause cannot be laid down by hard and fast rules. In New India Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Shanti Misra (1975 (2) SCC 840) Supreme Court held that discretion given by Section 5 should not be defined or crystallised so as to convert a discretionary matter into a rigid rule of law. The expression "sufficient cause" should receive a liberal construction. In Brij Indar Singh v. Kanshi Ram (ILR (1918) 45 Cal 94 (PC) it was observed that true guide for a court to exercise the discretion under Section 5 is whether the appellant acted with reasonable diligence in prosecuting the appeal. In Shakuntala Devi Jain v. Kuntal Kumari (AIR 1969 SC 575) a Bench of three Judges had held that unless want of bona fides of such inaction or negligence as would deprive a party of the protection of Section 5 is proved, the application must not be thrown out or any delay cannot be refused to be condoned.
In Concord of India Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Nirmala Devi (1979 (4) SCC 365) which is a case of negligence of the counsel which misled a litigant into delayed pursuit of his remedy, the default in delay was condoned. In Lala Mata Din v. A. Narayanan (1969 (2) SCC 770), Supreme Court had held that there is no general proposition that mistake of counsel by itself is always sufficient cause for condonation of delay. It is always a question whether the mistake was bona fide or was merely a device to cover an ulterior purpose. In that case it was held that the mistake committed by the counsel was bona fide and it was not tainted by any mala fide motive. In State of Kerala v. E. K. Kuriyipe (1981 Supp SCC 72), it was held that whether or not there is sufficient cause for condonation of delay is a question of fact dependant upon the facts and circumstances of the particular case. In Milavi Devi v. Dina Nath (1982 (3) SCC 366), it was held that the appellant had sufficient cause for not filing the appeal within the period of limitation.
In O. P. Kathpalia v. Lakhmir Singh (1984 (4) SCC 66), a Bench of three Judges had held that if the refusal to condone the delay results in grave miscarriage of justice, it would be a ground to condone the delay. Delay was accordingly condoned. In Collector Land Acquisition v. Katiji (1987 (2) SCC 107), a Bench of two Judges considered the question of the limitation in an appeal filed by the State and held that Section 5 was enacted in order to enable the court to do substantial justice to the parties by disposing of matters on merits. The expression "sufficient cause" is adequately elastic to enable the court 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 9 of courts. It is common knowledge that Supreme 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. This Court reiterated that the expression "every day's delay must be explained" does not mean that a pedantic approach should be made. The doctrine must be applied in a rational common sense pragmatic manner. 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. 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. Judiciary is not respected on account of its power to legalise 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. 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. The delay was accordingly condoned.
In G. Ramegowda, Major v. Spl. Land Acquisition Officer (1988 (2) SCC 142), it was held that no general principle saving the party from all mistakes of its counsel could be laid. The expression "sufficient cause" must receive a liberal construction so as to advance substantial justice and generally delays in preferring the appeals are required to be condoned in the interest of justice where no gross negligence or deliberate inaction or lack of bona fides is imputable to the party seeking condonation of delay. In litigations to which Government is a party, there is yet another aspect which, perhaps, cannot be ignored. If appeals brought by Government are lost for such defaults, no person is individually affected, but what, in the ultimate analysis, suffers is public interest. The decisions of Government are collective and institutional decisions and do not share the characteristics of decisions of private individuals. The law of limitation is, no doubt, the same for a private citizen as for governmental authorities. Government, like any other litigant must take responsibility for the acts, omissions of its officers. But a somewhat different complexion is imparted to the matter where Government makes out a case where public interest was shown to have suffered owing to acts of fraud or bad faith on the part of its officers or agents and where the officers were clearly at cross-purposes with it. It was, therefore, held that in assessing what constitutes sufficient cause for purposes of Section 5, it might, perhaps, be somewhat unrealistic to exclude from the consideration that go into the judicial verdict, these factors which are peculiar to and characteristic of the functioning of the Government. Government decisions are proverbially slow encumbered, as they are, by a considerable degree of procedural red-tape in the process of their making. A certain amount of latitude is, therefore, not impermissible. It is rightly said that those who bear responsibility of Government must have "a little play at the joints". Due recognition of these limitations on governmental functioning - of course, within reasonable limits - is necessary if the judicial approach is not to be rendered unrealistic. It would, perhaps, be unfair and unrealistic to put Government and private parties on the same footing in all respects in such matters. Implicit in the very nature of Governmental functioning is procedural delay incidental to the decision-making process. The delay of over one year was accordingly condoned.
The expression "sufficient cause" should, therefore, be considered with pragmatism in justice-oriented approach rather than the technical detection of sufficient cause for explaining every day's delay. The factors which are peculiar to and characteristic of the functioning of the governmental conditions would be cognizant to and requires adoption of pragmatic approach in justice-oriented process. The court should decide the matters on merits unless the case is hopelessly without merit. No separate standards to determine the cause laid by the State vis-a-vis private litigant could be laid to prove strict standards of sufficient cause. The Government at appropriate level should constitute legal cells to examine the cases whether any legal principles are involved for decision by the courts or whether cases require adjustment and should authorise the officers to take a decision or give appropriate permission for settlement. In the event of decision to file appeal needed prompt action should be pursued by the officer responsible to file the appeal and he should be made personally responsible for lapses, if any. Equally, the State cannot be put on the same footing as an individual. The individual would always be quick in taking the decision whether he would pursue the remedy by way of an appeal or application since he is a person legally injured while State is an impersonal machinery working through its officers or servants. It was noted that adoption of strict standard of proof sometimes fail to protract public justice, and it would result in public mischief by skilful management of delay in the process of filing an appeal.
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