Sunday, September 30, 2012

“Sufficient Cause”- What Does the Supreme Court Say?

Often, non-lawyers wonder at the sheer breadth and width of words used in statutes such as “sufficient cause” or “reasonable delay”. The reason statutes need to use such broad terms is to provide Judges with sufficient latitude to accommodate genuine reasons which the facts of a case may present. 

But then, in exercising their discretion to decide sufficiency of a cause or reasonableness of a delay, what are judges bound by, other than reason and equity?

The Supreme Court had an opportunity to discuss the limiting factors which come into play in determining what amounts to a “sufficient cause” under Section 5 of the Limitation Act in Lanka Venkateswarlu v. State of AP. In this case, the AP High Court had condoned a delay of 3703 days without providing any reasons for the condonation.

The Apex Court observed that rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the rights of parties, but are intended to prevent use of dilatory tactics to drag or prolong the proceedings. The Court cited its own decision in Balwant Singh v. Jagdish Singh in which it held that although sufficient cause must receive liberal construction by Courts, “it must squarely fall within the concept of reasonable time and proper conduct of the party concerned”.

The Court went on to observe thus:

“The purpose of introducing liberal construction normally is to introduce the concept of reasonableness as it is understood in its general connotation. The law of limitation is a substantive law and has definite consequences on the right and obligation of party to arise. These principles should be adhered to and applied appropriately depending on the facts and circumstances of a given case.

Once a valuable right has accrued in favour of one party as a result of the failure of the other party to explain the delay by showing sufficient cause and its own conduct, it will be unreasonable to take away that right on the mere asking of the applicant, particularly when the delay is directly a result of negligence, default or inaction of that party.

Justice must be done to both parties equally. Then alone the ends of justice can be achieved. If a party has been thoroughly negligent in implementing its rights and remedies, it will be equally unfair to deprive the other party of a valuable right that has accrued to it in law as a result of his acting vigilantly.”

I think this observation is of critical relevance because sometimes Courts, in their eagerness to dispose matters, do not take parties to task which cook up stories and seek condonation on frivolous grounds. In other words, if limitation is intended to serve as a deterrent to parties from indulging in dilatory tactics, and from consuming the precious time of the Court, then Courts too have a duty to ensure that condonation is afforded only under genuine circumstances, which are properly accounted for by the party seeking condonation.

Is this principle applicable only to the Code of Civil Procedure or the Limitation Act? I would think that this sentiment applies to any provision of the law which prescribes a time period for undertaking a particular course of action, and also envisages extension of time. It applies even when provisions for extension of time do not expressly mention the words "for sufficient cause" or "reasonable delay".

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