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Law of Limitation

The limitation Act is a procedural or adjective law. It is lex fori. It prescribes the periods after the expiry of which a suit cannot be maintained in a court of justice to enforce a right. The object of the Act is not to create or define causes of action, but simply to prescribe the period within which existing rights can be enforced in Courts of Law (Livi v. Ramji 3 Bom 207).

There are three different reasons supporting the existence of statutes of limitation, namely:

  • 1. That long dormant claims have often more cruelty than justice in them.
  • 2. That a defendant might have lost the evidence to dispute the stale claim, e.g. loss of destruction of documents, fading of memory etc.
  • 3. That persons with good causes of action should pursue them with reasonable diligence.

The doctrine of limitation is based on two broad considerations:

First, there is the presumption that a right not exercised for a long time is non-existent. Laws come to the assistance of the vigilant and not of the sleepy (Vigilantibus non dormeientibus jura subveniunt).

Second, an unlimited and perpetual threat of litigation creates insecurity and uncertainty, some kind of limitation is essential for public order and peace. Thus, the statutes of limitation are known as 'statutes of repose' or 'statutes of peace'.

Sections 3 to 11 of the Act deals with the limitation of suits, appeals and applications.

Section 3:

This section limits the time after which the suit or other proceedings would be barred. Every suit, claim etc. must be filed within the time specified in the First Schedule to the Act. Few important points in this regard:

  • 1. S. 3 is pre-emptory, and the duty of the court is to take note of Act and give effect to it, even though limitation is not referred to in the pleadings. When the question of limitation is purely one of law capable of determination on the facts admitted or proved before the court, the court is bound to raise the question suo motu. But when the question of limitation depends upon facts not disclosed in the plaint, the defendant is bound to raise such question (Padurang v. Mruti AIR 1966 SC 153).
  • 2. Plea of limitation- can be raised at any stage of a case. Thus, the defendant can raise the plea of limitation at the hearing of a suit, even if he has not pleaded limitation in his written statement.
  • 3. Burden of proof- Normally, defendant must plead the bar of limitation. Thus the initial BOP that the plaint or appeal is within time vests upon the plaintiff or the appellant. However the BOP later shifts to the defendant.
  • 4. Limitation being a matter of statute, S. 3 leaves no room for equitable considerations. The court has no power to reliever the suitor from the bar of limitation on the grund of hardship, mistake or injustice. The parties cannot by consent or agreement, extend or alter the period of limitation.
  • 5. It equally operates for or against a private individual as also government.

Leading case:

Punjab National Bank v. Surendra Prasad Sinha (AIR 1992 SC 1815)

The court observed that the rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the rights of the parties. S. 3 only bars the remedy, but does not destroy the right, which the remedy relates to. The right to the debt continues to exist notwithstanding the remedy is barred by limitation. Only exception in which the remedy also becomes barred by limitation is that the right itself is destroyed.

The court observed that the rules of limitation are not meant to destroy the rights of the parties. S. 3 only bars the remedy, but does not destroy the right, which the remedy relates to. The right to the debt continues to exist notwithstanding the remedy is barred by limitation. Only exception in which the remedy also becomes barred by limitation is that the right itself is destroyed.

Section 4:

It deals with extension of time over that period during which a person is delayed by the court's action and not by any act on his own.

S.4 gives expression to the maxims:

  • I. Lex non cogit ad impossibilia i.e. the law does not compel man to do that which he cannot possibly perform,
  • II. actus curiae neminem gravabit i.e. an act of the court shall not prejudice any party.

The word 'court' means the proper court in which the application ought to have been made. Thus if the application is filed in a wrong court, no benefit under this section will be available (Amar Chand v. UOI, AIR 1973 SC 313).

S.4 has nothing to do with period of limitation. It does not add to the period of limitation. It merely permits the filing of the suit, etc. on the date beyond the period of limitation i.e. what all it signifies is the where the period of limitation expires on a day when the court is closed, notwithstanding the fact, application may be made on the day when the court reopens (Maqbul Ahmed v. Onkar Pratap Singh AIR 1935 PC 35).

Explanation to S. 4 takes note of circumstances in which the court is not officially declared closed but when during any part of its normal working day, it remains closed. According to explanation, if a court remains closed only for a few hours (e.g. due to strike) it will be treated as closed on that day (Ram v. Sumitra Bai AIR 1979 Bom. 14).

Section 5:

This section is an exception to the general rule contained in S.3.

It does not apply to suits i.e. the original cause of action as well as to the execution proceedings. S.5 has no application where appeal itself is preferred in time but there is an irregularity in presenting it. The provisions of S.5 apply to courts only but not appeals or applications to be presented in tribunals or other authorities. But relevant statute may confer power upon the tribunals to condone the delay (viz. Income Tax tribunal).

Some general conditions for condonation of delay under S.5 could be summarized as follows:

  • I. The party seeking relief has to satisfy the court that he had sufficient cause for not preferring the appeal etc. within the prescribed time. If the party fails to show such sufficient cause, the cause shown for the later pariod may not be relevant. (State of Manipur v. All Manipur RPVS Teachers' Asscn. 1996 Gau.1)
  • II. The explanation has to cover the entire period of delay i.e. delay made after the last day of limitation day to day till the actual date of filing the application (Rewa Coalfield's case).
  • III. The proof of sufficient cause is a condition precedent for the exercise of the discretionary jurisdiction vested in the court under S.5. The court has discretion to admit or refuse to admit the proceeding, even if sufficient cause is shown, as is made clear by the words "may be admitted" used in the section. (Manohar Joshi v. Nitin Bhaurao Patil (1996)1 SCC 169)
  • IV. The discretion conferred on the court is a judicial and not arbitrary discretion and must be exercised to advance substantial justice (Vedabai v. Shantaram Patil AIR 2001 SC 2582). The court must carefully weigh the claims of the two parties.
  • V. The true guide for court in the exercise of the discretion is whether the appellant acted with reasonable diligence in prosecuting the appeal. The period for preferring must not extend merely because the appellant's case is hard (Chunnilal Basu v. Chief Justice AIR 1874 Cal. 326).

The Supreme Court has observed in State of West Bengal v. The Administrator, Howrah Municipality (AIR 1972 SC 749) that the expression "sufficiency" cannot be construed too liberally merely because the party in question is government.

A liberal approach is adopted in principle as it is realised that:

  • Refusing to condone delay can result in meritorious matter being thrown out at the very threshhold and cause of justice being defeated.
  • 'Every day 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 common sense.
  • When substantial justice and technical considerations are pitted against each other, cause of substantial justice deserved s to be preferred for the other side cannot claim to have vested right in injustice being done because of a non-deliberate delay.
  • The sufficient cause is a question of fact and not a question of principle. The phrase pertains to establishment of appropriate facts before the court to which the court can apply its mind and arrive at a conclusion regarding sufficiency of cause or otherwise.

The Privy Council in Krishna v. Chattappan (1889) ILR 13 M 269, said that the considerations for determining sufficient cause are:

  • It must be a cause which is beyond the control of the party;
  • The party must not be shown to be negligent, inactive or lacking in bona fides.

Lawpreneurz Details of Limitation Act

Sr No. Topics
Lecture 1 Limitation Act Part I
Lecture 2 Limitation Act Part II
Lecture 3 Limitation Act Question Bank

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