Defendant shall not be permitted to seek extension of time when the court is satisfied that it is a case of laxity or gross negligence on the part of the defendant or his counsel.
(SUPREME COURT OF INDIA)
Nanhku and others
(Before : R. C. Lahoti, C.J.I., D. M. Dharmadhikari And P. K. Balasubramanyan, JJ.)
Civil Appeal No. 7000 of 2004, Decided on : 06-04-2005.
The CPC which consolidated and amended the laws relating to the procedure of the Courts of Civil Judicature in the year 1908, has in the recent times undergone several amendments based on the recommendations of the Law Commission displaying the anxiety of Parliament to secure an early and expeditious disposal of civil SUITs and proceedings but without sacrificing the fairness of trial and the principles of natural justice in-built in any sustainable procedure. The Statement of Objects and Reasons for enacting Code of Civil Procedure (Amendment) Act, 1976 (104 of 1976) records the following basic considerations which persuaded the Parliament in enacting the amendments:-
(i) that a litigant should get a fair trial in accordance with the accepted principles of natural justice;
(ii) that every effort should be made to expedite the disposal of civil SUITs and proceedings, so that justice may not be delayed;
(iii) that the procedure should not be complicated and should, to the utmost extent possible, ensure fair deal to the poorer sections of the community who do not have the means to engage a pleader to defend their cases.
By Code of Civil Procedure (Amendment) Act, 1999 (46 of 1999) the text of Order VIII, Rule 1 was sought to be substituted in a manner that the power of court to extend the time for filing the written statement was so circumscribed as would not permit the time being extended beyond 30 days from the date of service of summons on the defendant. As is well-known, there was stiff resistance from the members of the Bar against enforcing such and similar other provisions sought to be introduced by way of amendment and hence the Amendment Act could not be promptly notified for enforcement. The text of the provision in the present form has been introduced by Code of Civil Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2002 (22 of 2002) with effect from 1-7-2002. The purpose of such like amendments is stated in the Statement of Objects and Reasons as “to reduce delay in the disposal of civil cases”.
The text of Order VIII, Rule 1, as it stands now, reads as under:-
“1. Written statement – The defendant shall, within thirty days from the date of service of summons on him, present a written statement of his defence:
Provided that where the defendant fails to file the written statement within the said period of thirty days, he shall be allowed to file the same on such other day, as may be specified by the Court, for reasons to be recorded in writing, but which shall not be later than ninety days from the date of service of summons.”
Three things are clear. Firstly, a careful reading of the language in which Order VIII, Rule 1 has been drafted, shows that it casts an obligation on the defendant to file the written statement within 30 days from the date of service of summons on him and within the extended time falling within 90 days. The provision does not deal with the power of the court and also does not specifically take away the power of the court to take the written statement on record though filed beyond the time as provided for. Secondly, the nature of the provision contained in Order VIII, Rule 1 is procedural. It is not a part of the substantive law. Thirdly, the object behind substituting Order VIII, Rule 1 in the present shape is to curb the mischief of unscrupulous defendants adopting dilatory tactics, delaying the disposal of cases much to the chagrin of the plaintiffs and petitioners approaching the court for quick relief and also to the serious inconvenience of the court faced with frequent prayers for adjournments. The object is to expedite the HEARING and not to scuttle the same. The process of justice may be speeded up and hurried but the fairness which is a basic element of justice cannot be permitted to be buried.
All the rules of procedure are the handmaid of justice. The language employed by the draftsman of processual law may be liberal or stringent, but the fact remains that the object of prescribing procedure is to advance the cause of justice. In an adversarial system, no party should ordinarily be denied the opportunity of participating in the process of justice dispensation. Unless compelled by express and specific language of the Statute, the provisions of the CPC or any other procedural enactment ought not to be construed in a manner which would leave the court helpless to meet extraordinary situations in the ends of justice. The observations made by Krishna Iyer, J. in Sushil Kumar Sen vs. State of Bihar (1975) 1 SCC 774, are pertinent:-
“The mortality of justice at the hands of law troubles a Judge’s conscience and points an angry interrogation at the law reformer.
The processual law so dominates in certain systems as to overpower substantive rights and substantial justice. The humanist rule that procedure should be the handmaid, not the mistress, of legal justice compels consideration of vesting a residuary power in judges to act ex debito justitiae where the tragic sequel otherwise would be wholly inequitable. Justice is the goal of jurisprudence – processual, as such as substantive.”
In The State of Punjab and another vs. Shamlal Murari and another, (1976) 1 SCC 719, the Court approved in no unmistakable terms the approach of moderating into wholesome directions what is regarded as mandatory on the principle that “Processual law is not to be a tyrant but a servant, not an obstruction but an aid to justice. Procedural prescriptions are the handmaid and not the mistress, a lubricant, not a resistant in the administration of justice.” Ghanshyam Dass and others vs. Dominion of India and others, (1984) 3 SCC 46, the Court reiterated the need for interpreting a part of the adjective law dealing with procedure alone in such a manner as to subserve and advance the cause of justice rather than to defeat it as all the laws of procedure are based on this principle.
It is also to be noted that though the power of the Court under the proviso appended to Rule 1 of Order VIII is circumscribed by the words -shall not be later than ninety days” but the consequences flowing from non-extension of time are not specifically provided though they may be read by necessary implication. Merely, because a provision of law is couched in a negative language mandatory character, the same is not without exceptions. The courts when called upon to interpret the nature of the provision, may, keeping in view the entire context in which the provision came to be enacted, hold the same to be directory though worded in the negative form.
In Sangram Singh vs. Election Tribunal, Kotah and another, (1955) 2 SCR 1, this Court highlighted 3 principles while interpreting any portion of the CPC. They are:
(i) A code of procedure must be regarded as such. It is ‘procedure’ something designed to facilitate justice and further its ends: not a penal enactment for punishment and penalties: not a thing designed to trip people up. Too technical a construction of sections that leaves no room for reasonable elasticity of interpretation should therefore be guarded against (provided always that justice is done to ‘both’ sides) lest the very means designed for the furtherance of justice be used to frustrate it.
(ii) There must be ever present to the mind the fact that our laws of procedure are grounded on a principle of natural justice which requires that men should not be condemned unheard, that decisions should not be reached behind their backs, that proceedings that affect their lives and property should not continue in their absence and that they should not be precluded from participating in them. Of course, there must be exceptions and where they are clearly defined they must be given effect to.
(iii) No forms or procedure should ever be permitted to exclude the presentation of the litigant’s defence unless there be an express provision to the contrary.
Our attention has also been invited to a few other provisions such as Rules 9 and 10 of Order VIII. In spite of the time limit appointed by Rule 1 having expired, the court is not powerless to permit a written statement being filed if the court may require such written statement. Under Rule 10, the court need not necessarily pronounce judgment against the defendant who failed to file written statement as required by Rule 1 or Rule 9. The court may still make such other order in relation to the SUIT as it thinks fit.
As stated earlier, Order VIII, Rule 1 is a provision contained in the CPC and hence belongs to the domain of procedural law. Another feature noticeable in the language of Order VIII, Rule 1 is that although it appoints a time within which the written statement has to be presented and also restricts the power of the Court by employing language couched in a negative way that the extension of time appointed for filing the written statement was not to be later than 90 days from the date of service of summons yet it does not in itself provide for penal consequences to follow if the time schedule, as laid down, is not observed. From these two features certain consequences follow.
Justice G.P. Singh notes in his celebrated work “Principles of Statutory Interpretation” (Ninth Edition, 2004) while dealing with mandatory and directory provisions – “The study of numerous cases on this topic does not lead to formulation of any universal rule except this that language alone most often is not decisive, and regard must be had to the context, subject-matter and object of the statutory provision in question, in determining whether the same is mandatory or directory. In an oft-quoted passage Lord Campbell said : ‘No universal rule can be laid down as to whether mandatory enactments shall be considered directory only or obligatory with an implied nullification for disobedience. It is the duty of Courts of justice to try to get at the real intention of the Legislature by carefully attending to the whole scope of the statute to be considered’. (p.338) “For ascertaining the real intention of the Legislature”, points out Subbarao, J. “the court may consider inter alia, the nature and design of the statute, and the consequences which would follow from construing it the one way or the other; the impact of other provisions whereby the necessity of complying with the provisions in question is avoided; the circumstances, namely, that the statute provides for a contingency of the non-compliance with the provisions; the fact that the non-compliance with the provisions is or is not visited by some penalty; the serious or the trivial consequences, that flow therefrom; and above all, whether the object of the legislation will be defeated or furthered”. If object of the enactment will be defeated by holding the same directory, it will be construed as mandatory, whereas if by holding it mandatory serious general inconvenience will be created to innocent persons without very much furthering the object of enactment, the same will be construed as directory.” (pp.339-340)
Considering the object and purpose behind enacting Rule 1 of Order VIII in the present form and the context in which the provisions is placed, we are of the opinion that the provision has to be construed as directory and not mandatory. In exceptional situations, the court may extend the time for filing the written statement though the period of 30 days and 90 days, referred to in the provision, has expired.
However, we may not be misunderstood as nullifying the entire force and impact – the entire life and vigour – of the provision. The delaying tactics adopted by the defendants in law courts are now proverbial as they do stand to gain by delay. Ordinarily, the time schedule prescribed by Order VIII, Rule 1 has to be honoured.
The defendant should be vigilant.No sooner the writ of summons is served on him he should take steps for drafting his defence and filing the written statement on the appointed date of HEARING without waiting for the arrival of the date appointed in the summons for his appearance in the Court. The extension of time sought for by the defendant from the court whether within 30 days or 90 days, as the case may be, should not be granted just as a matter of routine and merely for asking more so, when the period of 90 days has expired. The extension can be only by way of an exception and for reasons assigned by the defendant and also recorded in writing by the Court to its satisfaction. It must be spelled out that a departure from the time schedule prescribed by Order VIII, Rule 1 of the Code was being allowed to be made because the circumstances were exceptional, occasioned by reasons beyond the control of the defendant and such extension was required in the interest of justice, and grave injustice would be occasioned if the time was not extended.
A prayer seeking time beyond 90 days for filing the written statement ought to be made in writing. In its judicial discretion exercised on well-settled parameters, the Court may indeed put the defendants on terms including imposition of compensatory costs and may also insist on affidavit, medical certificate or other documentary evidence (depending on the facts and circumstances of a given case) being annexed with the application seeking extension of time so as to convince the Court that the prayer was founded on grounds which do exist.
The extension of time shall be only by way of exception and for reasons to be recorded in writing, howsoever brief they may be, by the court. In no case, the defendant shall be permitted to seek extension of time when the court is satisfied that it is a case of laxity or gross negligence on the part of the defendant or his counsel. The court may impose costs for dual purpose: (i) to deter the defendant from seeking any extension of time just for asking and (ii) to compensate the plaintiff for the delay and inconvenience caused to him.
However, no strait-jacket formula can be laid down except that the observance of time schedule contemplated by Order VIII, Rule 1 shall be the rule and departure therefrom an exception, made for satisfactory reasons only.