Introduction to the law of Limitation

Author-Jerrin B. Mathew*


Recently the Supreme Court of India made a scathing remark against the inordinate delay of state governments in filing petitions, in the case of State of Madhya Pradesh v Bherulal. The court has opined that if the limitation period is too short for the government, then the parliament can change the duration, but the law will be followed as it is. The debate of the limitation period has resurfaced once again in legal circles. This debate is mainly happening in the case of government contracts. In light of this, it is imperative to understand the purpose of the law of limitation and its exceptions.      


"Time and Tide waits for none." Every parcel of human society is bound by time. Judiciary and law are no exceptions. The court can refuse to accept a case if the time of the cause of action and the time when the plaintiff approached the court, is barred. The law which empowers the courts to debar the ignorant plaintiffs is called the statute of limitation.  Law of limitation bars the person, whose right has been violated, to approach the court for relief if he doesn't approach the court during a reasonable period. The period of limitation depends upon the nature of the issue for which a person comes to the court. The limitation period in India at present is decided by The Limitation Act of 1963. Nearly all kinds of contracts except government contracts have three years as their limitation period. Government contracts have thirty years as the limitation period. Many argue that the extended period of limitation for government is a despotic and draconian law. It is a bias shown by the Judiciary towards government while the purpose of the Judiciary is to restrict the government's power.


On the other hand, many government officials argue that thirty years is not enough in many cases.  This paper argues that the extended period of limitation to the government is fair and just. This paper would first seek reasons for the law of limitation. Based on the grounds, it would justify the law's exceptions, and based on the exceptions; it would explain the extended period for the government. 


The reasons for the law of limitation in contracts 


There are many reasons why the law of limitation is in place, and nearly all countries have a limitation period in their jurisprudence. Some of the reasons are analysed below: -


Vengeance, not relief: Too much and unreasonable delay for seeking relief shows that the plaintiff is not seeking relief or justice but vengeance on the defendant[1].In that scenario, the proposed compensation would not amount to as much benefit for a plaintiff as the cost would be for the defendant and, more importantly, the litigation cost by society. 


Vigilance should be rewarded: It is easier and more efficient for courts to deliver relief when shreds of evidence are fresh, witnesses are present, and the laws applied are near the time or the cause of action[2]. Therefore, a person who is sleeping over his right should be punished while a vigilant person should be rewarded. This is echoed in the Latin principle of Vigilantibus non-dormientibus Jura subventions [3]. This is also called the Doctrine of Delay or Doctrine of Laches. 


Time

The time prescribed in the law of limitation in contracts is three years[4]. This is considered neither too long nor too short. The law commission report also says that the limitation period is reckoned according to the reasonable insight, keeping in mind his abilities and limitations[5].


Exceptions to the law of limitation   


The limitation period is procedural law[6].The purpose of a procedural law is to deliver justice legally. Therefore, the procedure is secondary to the cause of justice and only acts as a facilitator of justice. It should never become a hindrance to justice. Therefore, there are many court exceptions to the limitation period set up in the limitation act.   


Section 5 of the Limitation Act provides the exception of prescribed limitation periods if the plaintiff provides sufficient cause for coming late[7]. There are no lists of adequate grounds. The judges in Shree Satendra Kumar v Smt. Annu Jain stated that there should be no precise formula or definition of sufficient cause; instead, it a discretionary item[8].We have some precedents and case laws that give us a hint about how to construe this adequate cause. 


The landmark judgment on the aspect of sufficient cause for delay was Collector Land Acquisition V. Mst. Katiji & Ors[9]. In this judgment, Justice M. Thakkar laid down guidelines on dealing with 'sufficient cause.' According to him, sufficient cause should be construed liberally. This is because a reasonable person won't delay coming before the court to seek relief. He doesn't benefit from this act. Some meritorious cases which could have acted as good precedents would become useless, and justice would be denied to those who seek it because they didn't make it within the limitation period. The primary purpose of the Judiciary is to give relief to the unfortunate ones whose rights have been deprived and not to be indifferent to the cause of justice because a technical or a procedural norm is violated.    


State of West Bengal v. Administrator Howrah Municipality was a case of delay in appeal by the appellant because of the government lawyer's wrong advice[10].The verdict held was that the appeal is accepted because the case lacks mala fide intentions and negligence on the appellant's side. Hence, we see that the precedents show us that the limitation period's purpose is not to debar plaintiffs from filing the cases but to deter malafide cases and where the plaintiff was grossly negligent.


In Ramnath Sao V. Gobardhan Sao, it was held that a litigant may have been responsible for the cause of delay, but the same doesn't bar the litigant from seeking a remedy from courts[11]. In this particular case, it was viewed by the court that the plaintiff should have been more careful by visiting his lawyer within a short period. However, this default from the plaintiff doesn't make him responsible for debarring him for breaching the limitation period. Thus, until and unless it is proven that the plaintiff played dilatory tactics, it is construed that the plaintiff's plea is intended to be serious enough to admit the case. 


In Rama Ravalu Gavade V Sataba Gavadu Gavade, the Supreme court held that it is unreasonable for the high court to hold the limitation period against the illiterate farmer[12]. The court observed that the illiterate farmer was not given proper advice from his counsel. It was also improbable for the illiterate farmer to act beyond what his counsel would have told him to do. Hence, looking at the condition of the plaintiff, court held the plaintiff can go forward to seek relief. So, courts do look at the occupation and material condition of the plaintiff in deciding whether there was malafide or negligence on the part of the plaintiff. 

The law of limitation in government contracts 


While the private contracts both for individuals or for companies have three years of the limitation period, the government contracts have thirty years as a limitation period. Government contracts are the contracts where either party is a body affiliated to Central, State, or Local Government. Many Jurists have argued the biased nature of law towards government contracts in providing a longer period for acceptance of cases in the courts.


In the State of Rajasthan v. Jaimal, it was held that the government department is sufficiently staffed and mere transfer of documents from one city to another was not a sufficient cause and thereby the appeal filed by the state was rejected.  Here we could see that the court gave the same pedestal to the government as it gives to the private individuals. However, the court did mention that the government would not have been liable if they could prove anti-government motivation amongst the government applies. If the government cannot prove that then it means the government also took part in its workers' negligence. Just because the government doesn't have a malafide intention doesn't mean that the government is not liable. It should also give sufficient reasons for not approaching the court on time.  This shows that according to law the government is treated just as an individual when there is a delay beyond the limitation period[13].


In Nav Rattanmal And Others vs The State of Rajasthan, it was argued by the plaintiff that the greater limitation period given to the government violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution[14]. However, the judges held that the government could not be treated as an individual and directly footing with the individual. Two main reasons were provided for this view.


Firstly, unlike in the case of individuals, the party involving the government, for example, the bureaucrats and government officers, is not directly affected by the relief received by the government. Here we should remember the point about vengeance. We assumed that a diligent and vigilant person would go to the court as soon as possible. This is so because the individuals are directly affected by the relief or lack of it, and the injustice suffered by them directly affects their lives. This is not the case with government officials. They don't have any incentive or disincentive to bring the state's case before the court as soon as possible.


Moreover, the documentation and passing of files in the government hierarchy etc. which is often called red tape, bring due to delay in the case coming to the court. Unlike individuals, the decision-making process of the government is very slow and cautious. Whether this speed of the government is desirable for the welfare of the general public is a question for another debate which is beyond the scope of the project.


However, as it stands today government is a slow decision-making body that is not just due to the lack of influence of relief on the life of bureaucrats but also because of the very nature of the system in place. Hence treating government as a private individual would be treating those who are unequal equally. Therefore, it is valid that the government has a longer period of limitation than private individuals or firms. 


Secondly, the government enters into contracts that are for the benefit of the public. These cases affect the welfare of the general public. The welfare of the state should be the supreme purpose of the courts. Therefore, all the government cases would fall under the category of merit cases as described in the judgment of Collector Land Acquisition v Katiji. Hence, even if there would be no extended limitation period, still government would have been excused delay citing sufficient cause.


State of Madhya Pradesh v Bhirulal: A new way forward?


There were two broad reasons traditionally given for pleading of condonation of delay in government contracts. Firstly, red-tapism and secondly, lack of personal interest of bureaucrats in government property. State of Madhya Pradesh v Bhirulal tackles these two reasons in a novel manner[15].The court responds to the first reason by saying that today's government is not the government of the 1980s. It has all the modern technologies of the present day. The paperwork has been digitalized and much of the information is digitally available. Hence the excuses given to the governments of the 1980s or before cannot be given to the present governments.


Secondly, if bureaucrat's do not have any personal interest in filing cases within the stipulated time frame, then they should be held accountable for the delay. The public at large should not suffer for the negligence of bureaucrats and government officers.  Bureaucrats should be held accountable for their inefficiency. The loss should be recovered from the bureaucrat's income. On the surface, this idea seems good and feasible, and it surely is to some extent. For example, in the present case, the supreme court has laid costs of 25,000. However, there are some hurdles to this measure.


First of all, there are many officers in bureaucracy, each with their level of responsibility. It is impossible to divide the total cost or loss suffered by the total number of bureaucrats involved in one project. Senior officers might have less responsibility in causing delay then junior officers and vice versa. The officers may blame each other for the delay caused and give reasons that the delay was beyond their control. Hence, collecting the cost or other losses due to delay is easier said than done.


Secondly, the loss incurred to the government will be so high that it cannot be recovered by deducting some amount from the pay of bureaucrats. Therefore, the government or the public's actual loss cannot be recovered by dismissing cases with costs.

The judgment also states that if governments find it impossible to complete the formal procedure and reach the court within the limitation period, the legislature can amend the limitation act. This can be done in cases where governments feel that the limitation period is too short. However, having long limitation period is a temptation which we must resist. It only acts as an incentive for government officials to work inefficiently. 


Over the years, the courts have learned that violating the limitation period is always harmful to the cause of justice. Whether it dismisses the case or accepts it, the public at large has to suffer for the negligence of bureaucrats. 


A novel solution to deal with the limitation period. 


As mentioned in the above pages, whether courts accept or reject the case coming after the limitation period, the public at large suffers. If the court rejects the case the public suffer due to loss of the government's property or income. If the court regularly accepts the case, then filing the case beyond the limitation period will become a norm and lead to inefficiency. Hence, courts need to find the middle ground. 


If the court's measure of recovering costs from negligent bureaucrats is found feasible, then the best way, according to the author, is to admit the case with imposition of costs on the plaintiffs.  This would ensure that public money is not lost due to dismissal, and bureaucrats would have to pay for their inefficiency. The cost will have to be recovered by negligent bureaucrats thus giving them an incentive to file cases on time.  

Conclusion 

 

The law of limitation is necessary for any jurisprudence. The law of limitation prevents stale claim to be filed or the claim which doesn't seek relief from the court but vengeance from the defendants. It rewards and gives an incentive for the plaintiff to file the suit within a given time. Thus, it rewards the vigilant and punishes the dormant. 


There are exceptions to the limitation period in case of minors and mentally insane as it is not expected from them to have the capability to approach the courts given their circumstances. The law also provides a provision for condonation of delay if a sufficient cause is provided for the delay beyond the limitation period. 


The word sufficient cause is not defined either has there been a formula given for testing sufficient cause. It is purely left to the discretion of Judges. However, going by the precedents, we see that judges tend to construe the sufficient cause liberally. The law of limitation is a tool to deter dilatory tactics, reduce stale cases, and not deprive justice in meritorious matters based on delay in approaching the court.  


The government has a longer limitation period of thirty years. The longer limitation period for government is not because of any favour or bias that is granted by the courts to the state. For the simple reason, government contracts are essential to enforce since it affects the welfare of the people and the government machinery is a slow-moving body. Unlike private individuals, the bureaucrats don't get directly affected by the loss of relief because of delay in approaching the court. Hence the longer limitation period for government is fair and just.                   


State of Madhya Pradesh v Bhirulal has held that the government's loss should be recovered from the bureaucrats. This would mean that bureaucrats would be personally affected by the delay caused in coming to the courts. However, recovering money from bureaucrats is easier said than done because the culpability of causing delay is not equal for all bureaucrats. Secondly, it is practically not feasible to recover a large amount of money lost to the government in many cases. Hence courts have to accept nevertheless the cases filed after the limitation period. Therefore, the best way in the author's opinion is to take the case while imposing costs on the government to be recovered from bureaucrats.               

REFERENCE

1 C.K. Takwani, Civil Procedure with Limitation Act 1963 (7th edn. EBC 2013) 783.

2 Tyler T. Ochoa and Andrew Wistrich, The Puzzling Purposes of Statutes of Limitation, (1997)28 Pac. L. J.453.< http://digitalcommons.law.scu.edu/facpubs/81> accessed 29 December 2019.

3 Halsbury’s Law of England(4 th edn.), Vol. 28,para.605vat p.266.

4 The Limitation act 1963 Schedule Part II.

5 Third Law Commission Report p.1.

6 Ibid 7, 83.

7 The Indian Limitation Act 1963, S 5.

8 Sh. Satender Kumar vs Smt. Annu Jain RCA DJ No. 94/18.

9 Collector Land Acquisition V. Mst. Katiji & Ors. ,1987, 1987 SCC (2) 107.

10 State of West Bengal v. Administrator Howrah Municipality, 1971, MANU/SC/0534/1971.

11 Ramnath Sao V. Gobardhan Sao,2002, MANU /SC /0135 /2002.

12 Rama Ravalu Gavade V Sataba Gavadu Gavade,1997, &;MANU/SC/1000/1997&;.

13 State of Rajasthan V. Jaimal, 2017 SCC OnLine Raj 4110 : (2018) 2 RLW 1726 : AIR 2018 Raj54.

14 Nav Rattanmal And Others vs The State of Rajasthan, 1961, &;MANU/SC/0035/1961'.

15 State of Madhya Pradesh v Bhirulal, <https://indiankanoon.org/doc/167417106/>.


The Author Jerrin B. Mathew is a 2nd year B.A.LLB (Hons) student at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU),Bengaluru, Karnataka. Disclaimer-This article is the original submission of the Author. VAIDHA doesn't hold any liability arising out of this article.

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