While laws are to be complied with, the time by which actions need to be taken should be mentioned. Failure to do so makes actions time-barred to the prejudice of the parties concerned. However, powers to condone delays vest in the authorities concerned, which must be exercised in a liberal and pragmatic manner. Courts have said that pedantic views should not be taken in such matters.
The Law of Limitation is enshrined in the maxim interestre-publicae 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; rather the idea is that every legal remedy must be kept alive for a legislatively fixed period of time.
In the Collector, Land Acquisition vs Mst. Katiji (1987 13 ALR 306) case, the Supreme Court mentioned the aspects that have to be borne in mind while exercising condonation power. They are:
Ordinarilya litigant does not stand to benefit by lodging an appeal late.
Refusing to condone delay can result in a meritorious matter being thrown out at the very threshold and cause of justice being defeated. As against this, when delay is condoned, a cause would be decided on merit after hearing the parties.
`Every day's delay must be explained' does not mean that a pedantic approach should be made. Why not every hour's delay, every second's delay? The doctrine must be applied in a rational, commonsense and pragmatic manner.
When substantial justice and technical considerations are pitted against each other, the 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.
In few other cases also, the apex court has advised a similar approach. In N. Balakrishnan vs M. Krishnamurthy (1998 7 SCC 123 SC), the apex court explained the scope of limitation and condonation of delay, observing thus:
"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. 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 for the redress of the legal injury so suffered. The law of limitation is thus founded on public policy."
In New India Insurance Co. Ltd vs Smt. Shanti Misra (AIR 1976 SC 237), the 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 O. P. Kathpadia vs Lakhmir Singh (AIR 1984 SC 1744), the apex court held that if the refusal to condone the delay results in grave miscarriage of justice, it would be a ground to condone the delay.
Various High Courts have also made similar observations.
In the context of tax laws too, such situations are on the rise. Despite such views of the courts, the approach of the lower authorities, such as the CIT (Appeals) and Tribunals, have not changed and requests are being turned down mechanically and, thus, adding to the litigation. Such tendency needs to be curbed.
T. N. Pandey (The author is a former chairman of the CBDT.)