Limitation Act In COVID- 19 Times: Need To Reconsider Decision In 'Sagufa Ahmed vs. Upper Assam Plywood'

H Karthik Seshadri
20 Oct 2020 7:00 AM GMT
Limitation Act In COVID- 19 Times: Need To Reconsider Decision In   Sagufa Ahmed vs. Upper Assam Plywood
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When COVID 19 struck India, the administration of justice by the Courts suffered greatly. Under trying circumstances, the Courts including the highest Court of the land started functioning. The Judges functioned to ensure that justice was met to the common man under challenging circumstances. The Supreme Court, realizing the difficulties that were likely to be faced by the litigants on account of the pandemic and the 'lockdown' announced by the Government, on March 23, 2020, SuoMotto passed an order. The Order was passed to obviate difficulties faced by the litigants and lawyers across the country, extending the period of limitation in all proceedings, irrespective of the limitation prescribed under the General or Special laws whether condonable or not till further orders with effect from March 18, 2020.

The Supreme Court examined the effect of its Order of March 23, 2020, in Sagufa Ahmed vs.Upper Assam Plywood Products Ltd. [2] Those facts of the case as discussed, showed that the Appellants had failed to approach the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) from an order suffered by them in the National Company Law Tribunal within the period prescribed by the Companies Act, 2013 or the condonable period i.e. 45 days, before March 23, 2020. Facts clearly showed that the litigant was negligent in pursuing the appeal remedies available. The litigant wanted to take advantage of the beneficial Order. The Hon'ble Supreme Court rightly frowned on this and dismissed the plea. The facts of the case justified the dismissal.

The Supreme Court however went on to hold that its Order of March 23, 2020, was meant only to extend the "prescribed period" of Limitation and not any period beyond the "prescribed period". This, in the very humble opinion of the author, requires immediate reconsideration.

Section 5 of the Limitation Act enabled Courts and other Tribunals to condone delay if sufficient cause was shown for non-filing the appeal within the prescribed time. The legislature however has enacted various special laws such as the Companies Act, 2013[3], Arbitration & Conciliation Act, 1996, Trademarks Act, 1999, Commercial Courts Act, 2015 and restricted the ability of the judicial forum to condone delay beyond a particular period.

If one were to apply the law as laid down in Upper Assam Plywood, to a fact situation where the period of limitation prescribed under a statute expired just before March 18, 2020, and the condonable period fell after March 18, 2020, what would the effect? The litigant though entitled to get the delay condoned, upon showing sufficient cause for the non-filing within the prescribed time, would be left in a helpless situation. The concerned authority would also be helpless even though it is convinced that there was sufficient cause to condone the delay. Was this the object of the Suo Motto Order of the Supreme Court of March 23, 2020? Was it necessary for the Supreme Court to make this artificial distinction between "prescribed period" and "condonable period" in Upper Assam Plywood? The March 23, 2020 Order was passed taking note of the unprecedented situation that litigants and lawyers found themselves in. The effect of the Order was that the clock stopped running for purpose of the Limitation Act.

Limitation Act is a procedural enactment. The object of the statute is based on the Latin maxim Vigilantibus non-dorminetibus jura subveniunt, laws come to the assistance of the vigilant and not of the sleepy. Would it be appropriate to apply this principle to a litigant who was in a helpless situation to present his papers into Court, despite best efforts? The impact of the view expressed by the Supreme Court that the intention of the Order in Suo Motto Writ Petition No. 3 of 2020 was only to extend the 'prescribed period' and not the condonable period would have a huge cascading impact on thousands of litigants and cases. It is likely to result in enormous hardship for the litigants across jurisdictions.

Therefore, it is the humble view of the author that the aforesaid decision requires immediate reconsideration and the position clarified. This clarification can be done even in Suo Motto Writ Petition No.3 of 2020, which will provide relief to thousands of litigants across the country.

[1] The author is an Advocate practising in the Madras High Court. Views are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] and he tweets @advkarthiksesh

[2] (2020) 7 MLJ 92 (SC)

[3] Proviso to Section 421 of Companies Act, 2013 reads "Provided that the Appellate Tribunal may entertain an appeal after the expiry of the said period of forty-five days from the date aforesaid, but within a further period not exceeding forty-five days, if it is satisfied that the appellant was prevented by sufficient cause from filing the appeal within that period." The proviso to Section 34(3) of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act, 1996 reads "Provided that if the Court is satisfied that the applicant was prevented by sufficient cause from making the application within a further period of thirty days, but not thereafter."

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