Section 5 of the Limitation Act: SC interpreted liberally

In construing S.5 of the Limitation Act, the Court has to keep in mind that discretion in the section has to be exercised to advance substantial justice. The Court has a discretion to condone or refuse to condone the delay as is evident from the words “may be admitted” used in the section. While dealing with the scope of S.5 of the Limitation Act, Apex Court in Ramlal vs. Rewa Coalfields Ltd., AIR 1962 SC 361 held (paras 6 and 7) :

“Section 5 of the Limitation Act provides for extension of period of certain cases. It lays down, inter alia, that any appeal may be admitted after the period of limitation prescribed therefor when the appellant satisfies the Court that he had sufficient cause for not preferring the appeal within such period. This section raises two questions for consideration. First is, what is sufficient cause; and the second, what is the meaning of the clause “within such period”? With the first question we are not concerned in the present appeal. It is the second question which has been decided by the Judicial Commissioner against the appellant. He has held that “within such period” in substance means during the period prescribed for making the appeal. In other words, according to him, when an appellant prefers an appeal beyond the period of limitation prescribed he must show that he acted diligently and that there was some reason which prevented him from preferring the appeal during the period of limitation prescribed. If the Judicial Commissioner has held that “within such period” means “the period of the delay between the last day for filing the appeal and the date on which the appeal was actually filed” he would undoubtedly have come to the conclusion that the illness of Ramlal on February 16 was a sufficient cause. That clearly appears to be the effect of his judgment. That is why it is unnecessary for us to consider what is “a sufficient cause” in the present appeal. It has been urged before us by Mr. Andley, for the appellant, that the construction placed by the Judicial Commissioner on the words “within such period” is erroneous.

In construing S.5 it is relevant to bear in mind two important considerations. The first consideration is that the expiration of the period of limitation prescribed for making an appeal gives rise to a right in favour of the decree-holder to treat the decree as binding between the parties. In other words, when the period of limitation prescribed has expired the decree-holder has obtained a benefit under the law of limitation to treat the decree as beyond challenge, and this legal right which has accrued to the decree-holder by lapse of time should not be light-heartedly disturbed. The other consideration which cannot be ignored is that if sufficient cause for execusing delay is shown discretion is given to the Court to condone delay and admit the appeal. This discretion has been deliberately conferred on the Court in order that judicial power and discretion in that behalf should be exercised to advance substantial justice. As has been observed by the Madras High Court in Krishna vs. Chathappan (1889) ILR 13 Mad 269.

“Section 5 gives the Court a discretion which in respect of jurisdiction is to be exercised in the way in which Judicial power and discretion ought to be exercised upon principles which are well understood; the words ‘sufficient cause’ receiving a liberal construction so as to advance substantial Justice when no negligence nor inaction nor want of bona fide is imputable to the appellant.”

8. Again in State of West Bengal vs. Administrator, Howrah Municipality (1972) 1 SCC 366 and G. Ramegowda, Major vs. Special Land Acquisition Officer, Bangalore (1988) 2 SCC 142 this Court observed that the expression “sufficient cause” in S.5 of the Limitation Act must receive a liberal construction so as to advance substantial Justice and generally delays be condoned in the interest of justice where gross negligence or deliberate inaction or lack of bona fide is not imputable to the Party seeking condonation of delay. Law of limitation has been enacted to serve the interests of justice and not to defeat it. Again in N. Balakrishnan vs. M. Krishnamurthy (1998) 7 SCC 123 this Court held that acceptability of explanation for the delay is the sole criterion and length of delay is not relevant. In the absence of anything showing mala fide or deliberate delay as a dilatory tactics, the Court should normally condone the delay. However, in such a case the Court should also keep in mind the constant litigation expenses incurred or to be incurred by the opposite Party and should compensate him accordingly. In that context the Court observed (para 9 of AIR) :

“It is axiomatic that condonation of delay is a matter of discretion of the Court. Section 5 of the Limitation Act does not say that such discretion can be exercised only if the delay is within a certain limit. Length of delay is no matter, acceptability of the explanation is the only criterion. Sometimes delay of the shortest range may be uncondonable due to a want of acceptable explanation whereas in certain other cases, delay of a very long range can be condoned as the explanation thereof is satisfactory. Once the Court accepts the explanation as sufficient, it is the result of positive exercise of discretion and normally the superior Court should not disturb such finding, much less in revisional jurisdiction, unless the exercise of discretion was on wholly untenable grounds or arbitrary or perverse. But it is a different matter when the first Court refused to condone the delay. In such cases, the superior Court would be free to consider the cause shown for the delay afresh and it is open to such superior Court to come to its own finding even untrammelled by the conclusion of the lower Court.”