The expression ‘sufficient cause’ within the meaning of Section 5 of the Limitation Act, 1963 (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Act’), Order 22, Rule 9 of the Code of Civil Procedure (hereinafter referred to as ‘the Code’) as well as similar other provisions and the ambit of exercise of powers thereunder have been subject matter of consideration before this Court on numerous occasions.
In the case of The State of West Bengal vs. The Administrator, Howrah Municipality and others, (1972) 1 Supreme Court Cases 366, while considering scope of the expression ‘sufficient cause’ within the meaning of Section 5 of the Act, this Court laid down that the said expression should receive a liberal construction so as to advance substantial justice when no negligence or inaction or want of bona fide is imputable to a party.
In the case of Sital Prasad Saxena (dead) by LRs vs. Union of India and others, AIR 1985 Supreme Court 1, the Court was dealing with a case where in a second appeal, appellant died and application for substitution after condonation of delay and setting aside abatement filed after two years by the heirs and legal representatives was rejected on the ground that no sufficient cause was shown and the appeal was held to have abated. When the matter was brought to this Court, the appeal was allowed, delay in filing the petition for setting aside the abatement was condoned, abatement was set aside, prayer for substitution was granted and High Court was directed to dispose of the appeal on merits and while doing so, it was observed that once an appeal is pending in the High Court, the heirs are not expected to keep a constant watch on the continued existence of parties to theappeal before the High Court which has a seat far away from where parties in rural areas may be residing inasmuch as in a traditional rural family the father may not have informed his son about the litigation in which he was involved and was a party. It was further observed that Courts should recall that “What has been said umpteen times that rules of procedure are designed to advance justice and should be so interpreted and not to make them penal statutes for punishing erring parties.”
In the case of Rama Ravalu Gavade vs. Sataba Gavadu Gavade (dead) through LRs. and another, (1997) 1 SCC 261, during the pendency of the appeal, one of the parties died. In that case, the High Court had refused to condone the delay in making an application for setting aside abatement and set aside abatement, but this Court condoned the delay, set aside abatement and directed the appellate Court to dispose of appeal on merit observing that the High Court was not right in refusing to condone the delay as necessary steps could not be taken within the time prescribed on account of the fact that the appellant was an illiterate farmer.
In the case of N. Bala-krishnan vs. M. Krishnamurthy, (1998) 7 Supreme Court Cases 123, there was a delay of 883 days in filing application for setting aside ex parte decree for which application for condona-tion of delay was filed. The trial Court having found that sufficient cause was made out for condonation of delay, condoned the delay but when the matter was taken to the High Court of Judicature at Madras in a revision application under Section 115 of the Code, it was observed that the delay of 883 days in filing the application was not properly explained and it was held that the trial Court was not justified in condoning the delay resulting into reversal of its order whereupon this Court was successfully moved which was of the view that the High Court was not justified in interfering with order passed by trial Court whereby delay in filing the application for setting aside ex parte decree was condoned and accordingly order of the High Court was set aside. K. T. Thomas, J. speaking for the Court succinctly laid down the law observing thus in paras 8, 9 and 10 :
“8. The appellant’s conduct does not on the whole warrant to castigate him as an irresponsible litigant. What he did in defending the suit was not very much far from what a litigant would broadly do. Of course, it may be said that he should have been more vigilant by visiting his advocate at short intervals to check up the progress of the litigation. But during these days when everybody is fully occupied with his own avocation of life an omission to adopt such extra vigilance need not be used as a ground to depict him as a litigant not aware of his responsibilities, and to visit him with drastic consequences.
9. 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 refuses 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 untrammeled by the conclusion of the lower Court.
The primary function of a Court is to adjudicate the dispute between the parties and to advance substantial justice. The time limit fixed for approaching the Court in different situations is not because on the expiry of such time a bad cause would transform into a good cause .”
The Court further observed in paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 which run thus :-
“11. Rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the rights of parties. They are meant to see that parties do not resort to dilatory tactics, but seek their remedy promptly. The object of providing a legal remedy is to repair the damage caused by reason of legal injury. The law of limitation fixes a lifespan for such legal remedy for the redress of the legal injury so suffered. Time is precious and wasted time would never revisit. During the efflux of time, newer causes would sprout up necessitating newer persons to seek legal remedy by approaching the Courts. So a lifespan must be fixed for each remedy. Unending period for launching the remedy may lead to unending uncertainty and consequential anarchy. The law of limitation is thus founded on public policy. It is enshrined in the maxim interest reipublicae up sit finis litium (it is for the general welfare that a period be put to litigation). Rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the rights of the parties.They are meant to see that parties do not resort to dilatory tactics but seek their remedy promptly. The idea is that every legal remedy must be kept alive for a legislatively fixed period of time.
A Court knows that refusal to condone delay would result in foreclosing a suitor from putting forth his cause. There is no presumption that delay in approaching the Court is always deliberate. This Court has held that the words “sufficient cause” under Section 5 of the Limitation Act should receive a liberal construction so as to advance substantial justice vide Shakuntala Devi Jain vs. Kuntal Kumari, (1969) 1 SCR 1006 and State of W. B. vs. Administrator, Howrah Municipality, (1972) 1 SCC 366.
13. It must be remembered that in every case of delay, there can be some lapse on the part of the litigant concerned. That alone is not enough to turn down his plea and to shut the door against him. If the explanation does not smack of mala fides or it is not put forth as part of a dilatory strategy, the Court must show utmost consideration to the suitor. But when there is reasonable ground to think that the delay was occasioned by the party deliberately to gain time, then the Court should lean against acceptance of the explanation. While condoning the delay, the Court should not forget the opposite party altogether. It must be borne in mind that he is a loser and he too would have incurred quite large litigation expenses.”
Thus it becomes plain that the expression “sufficient cause” within the meaning of Section 5 of the Act or Order 22 Rule 9 of the Code or any other similar provision should receive a liberal construction so as to advance substantial justice when no negligence or inaction or want of bona fide is imputable to a party. In a particular case whether explanation furnished would constitute “sufficient cause” or not will be dependant upon facts of each case. There cannot be a straitjacket formula for accepting or rejecting explanation furnished for the delay caused in taking steps. But one thing is clear that the Courts should not proceed with the tendency of finding fault with the cause shown and reject the petition by a slipshod order in over jubilation of disposal drive. Acceptance of explanation furnished should be the rule and refusal an exception more so when no negligence or inaction or want of bona fide can be imputed to the defaulting party. On the other hand, while considering the matter the Courts should not lose sight of the fact that by not taking steps within the time prescribed a valuable right has accrued to the other party which should not be lightly defeated by condoning delay in a routine like manner. However, by taking a pedantic and hyper technical view of the matter the explanation furnished should not be rejected when stakes are high and/or arguable points of facts and law are involved in the case, causing enormous loss and irreparable injury to the party against whom the lis terminates either by default or inaction and defeating valuable right of such a party to have the decision on merit. While considering the matter, Courts have to strike a balance between resultant effect of the order it is going to pass upon the parties either way.
Ram Nath Sao alias Ram Nath Sahu-AIR 2002 SC 1201 : (2002) 2 SCR 77 : (2002) 3 SCC 195 : JT 2002 (2) SC 349 : (2002) 2 SCALE 334