A critical analysis of the Supreme Court decision in Sheo Raj Singh (Deceased) Through Lrs & Ors. v. Union of India  regarding the approach to be taken by the courts while handling condonation application by the state or its machinery.
A two-judge bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in a recent judgment dated October 9, 2023, titled Sheo Raj Singh (Deceased) Through Lrs. & Ors. v. Union of India gave its perspective on how applications for condonation of delay ought to be handled especially when the application is filed by the machinery of the state/government. The approach taken by the court is one where it has distinguished between an ‘explanation’ and an ‘excuse’ and seeks to pardon those who can provide the former satisfactorily. But in modern times, when communications can be passed on with a single click, where can a line be drawn between an ‘explanation’ and an ‘excuse’? Can a mere narration of facts showing the slow-paced manner in which the files move from one table to another in an administrative set-up be considered a sufficient explanation for breaching the limitation? Is it fair to take away a very valid ground for a counter-attack on the part of the private opposite party merely because the state can provide an ‘explanation’ of how it may have caused an inordinate delay in making a filing?
The present article intends to throw some light on the discussions and analysis done by the Supreme Court in this recent judgment and attempts to find answers to the aforesaid questions which one would invariably have after reading the judgment and reviewing its analysis.
The facts that matter
One of the important observations of the Supreme Court in the case under discussion is that each case for condonation of delay based on the existence or absence of sufficient cause has to be decided on its own facts. In light of this noting, it is significant to understand the facts in the given matter.
The Delhi High Court whose judgment was under challenge before the Supreme Court in Sheo Raj Singh had allowed the application for condonation of delay filed by the Union of India under Section 5 of the Limitation Act, 1963 and condoned the delay of around 479 days in the presentation of an appeal from the decision of the Reference Court under section 18 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 while imposing costs of Rs.10,000 on the Government. Interestingly, the explanation provided by the Government is quite detailed, comprising of when the files moved from one table to another, when the certified copy of the order of the Reference Court was applied for (which was three months after it was pronounced), how the said certified copy was misplaced and had to be applied for again, the time taken for approval of payment of the court fees, etc.
The High Court while considering the condonation application found that the Government had sufficiently explained the delay on account of negligence on the part of the government functionaries and the government counsel on record before the Reference Court. Further, it was held that the officer responsible for the negligence would be liable to suffer and not public interest through the state. The High Court was also of the view that the length of the delay is not decisive in exercising its discretion in deciding condonation applications when the delay is properly explained.
Grounds of challenge
The respondents to the appeal before the High Court appealed against its decision to condone before the High Court on the ground that the reasons provided by the state were not reasonable and were habitual unacceptable explanations to seek condonation of delay. It was also the argument of the appellant that a mere narration of the chain of events that had taken place pursuant to the order of the Reference Court cannot be construed as satisfactorily explained delay. The appellant also sought to rely upon some of the decisions where the courts had refused to condone a far lesser delay.
Observations and findings of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court recorded the findings in a series of coordinate bench judgments where the courts have considered condonation applications. These judgments cover the cases where condonation was both upheld and disallowed by the Supreme Court.
The judgments where condonation was allowed/ upheld were as follows:
- Collector, Land Acquisition, Anantnag & Anr. Mst. Katiji & Ors – Delay of 4 days condoned – Sufficient cause was shown to exist.
- Ramegowda v. Spl. Land Acquisition Officer – Delay was condoned.
- Special Tehsildar, Land Acquisition K.V. Ayisumma; – Delay condoned
- State of Haryana Chandra Mani; – Delay of 109 days condoned
- State of Nagaland Lipok AO & Ors. – Delay of 57 days on the part of the state – Condoned.
- State of Manipur & Ors. Koting Lamkang – 312 days condoned on the ground of public interest.
On the other hand, in the following judgments, the condonation of delay was disallowed:
- Balwant Singh (Dead) Jagdish Singh & Ors. – Refused to condone 778 days delay in bringing on record the legal heirs of the Petitioner.
- Lanka Venkateswarlu (Dead) State of Andhra Pradesh – Refused to condone the delay of 883 days.
- Chief Postmaster General & Ors. v. Living Media India Limited & Anr. – Refused to condone 427 days delay.
- Esha Bhattacharjee Managing Committee of Raghunathpur Nafar Academy & Ors. – Set aside the High Court judgment condoning delay of 2449 days.
- University of Delhi Union of India & Ors – Declined to condone the delay of 916 days.
- State of Madhya Pradesh Behrulal – Special Leave Petition filed after a delay of 663 days along with the reasons provided for such delay was rejected.
The Supreme Court after reviewing the aforesaid decisions, observed that the courts have stepped in to ensure that the substantive rights of private parties and state are not to be defeated merely due to technical considerations. It was further observed that the condonation of delay is a discretionary power available to the courts which depends on the sufficiency of the cause shown and the degree of acceptability of the explanation. While doing so, the length of the delay is immaterial.
It was then laid down that the courts must distinguish between an ‘explanation’ and an ‘excuse’. According to the bench, an ‘explanation’ is when all of the facts and layout of the cause are provided which helps to clarify the circumstances of a particular event to point out that something has happened due to no fault of the person seeking condonation. Further, according to the judgment, an ‘excuse’ is that which is offered to shy away from responsibility and consequences would imply that the explanation offered is believed not to be true. After noting the difference, the court observes that ‘excuses’, and not ‘explanations’, are accepted by the courts to condone long delays to safeguard the public interest.
The bench then shifted its focus to how much an appellate court can interfere in matters where the condonation of delay has been decided by the lower court/ tribunal. In this regard, it was held that the appellate forum can only decide whether the discretion has been exercised properly in favour of grant of the prayer for condonation. The court relied on the judgment of the Supreme Court in Gujarat Steel Tubes Ltd. v. Gujarat Steel Tubes Mazdoor Sabha, where it was held that “an appellate power interferes not when the order appealed is not right but only when it is clearly wrong.”
The court used this, to state that even though there were decisions which did not accept governmental lethargy as a sufficient cause of delay, the exercise of discretion by the High Court has to be tested based on a liberal and justice-oriented approach which was propounded in the judgments which existed prior to the date of the impugned judgment. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that the discretion had not been exercised arbitrarily by the High Court and that there was no reason for it to interfere.
Interestingly, of all the decisions noted by the court where the condonation was not allowed, only two judgments namely, University of Delhi, and Balwant Singh were distinguished by the court before arriving at its conclusion. The court further held that “impediments in the working of the grand scheme of governmental functions have to be removed by taking a pragmatic view on balancing of the competing interests.”
Before understanding the ratio decidendi of the judgment in Sheo Raj Singh, it would be relevant to understand the scope and purpose of Section 5 of the Limitation Act, 1963. The principle is that, if the act is not done within the period of limitation, it shall be deemed as barred by limitation, unless the delay is satisfactorily explained to show that there was sufficient cause for not being able to meet the deadline.
The existence of ‘sufficient cause’ is what is tested before the courts when a delay is sought to be condoned. The Supreme Court’s finding that the existence or absence of ‘sufficient cause’ has to be decided on the facts of each case is logical. It is also true that there cannot be a hard and fast rule on what should constitute ‘sufficient cause’. The question is, to what extent can the court take a liberal or justice-oriented approach while deciding an application for condonation? Justice has to be done by taking the interests of all parties into consideration. In a very early decision of the Supreme Court, it was held that “when the period of limitation prescribed has expired the decree-holder has obtained a benefit under the Law of Limitation to treat the decree as beyond challenge, and this legal right which has accrued to the decree-holder by lapse of time should not be light-heartedly disturbed.”  Therefore, a valid benefit accrued to counter-party to the appeal cannot be completely sidestepped in a case where the delay is writ large and the cause for delay is nothing but negligence or a casual approach taken by the government body.
While it is true that technical and venial objections should not be allowed to prevent meritorious claims involving substantive public interest from being heard, the Supreme Court has not discussed in the given facts, the public interest that is involved.
The court’s finding that there has to be a clear demarcation between an ‘explanation’ and an ‘excuse’ is noteworthy. When an explanation is found to be not true, which is what the court has interpreted to be an ‘excuse’, it should most certainly not be accepted as sufficient cause for the delay. Even an ‘explanation’ should ideally not be accepted when it is nothing but a narration of facts that exhibit negligence and lack of seriousness. This lack of seriousness in making the filing can be seen from the length of the delay taken to make the filing within the limitation period. Hence, in the case under discussion, the High Court’s finding, which the Supreme Court has upheld, that the length of delay is not decisive in exercising its discretion in deciding condonation applications when the delay is properly explained, may not always be true. This is because, in most instances, very long delay would show signs of disinterest or negligence which are not pardonable in this new age and times.
It is pertinent to note that the Supreme Court, in this case, has not considered the facts which gave rise to the delay (despite narrating them chronologically), in order to clarify how the said set of facts is acceptable as ‘sufficient cause’ in terms of Section 5. Instead, the court has relied on a particular observation made in Gujarat Steel Tubes Ltd. on when the appellate court is to interfere. It is not clear from the judgment how the High Court’s decision to condone a delay is not ‘clearly wrong’ when the facts visibly exhibit negligence not only on the part of the government counsel from the government administration itself.
The various judgments recorded by the Supreme Court as listed above show that since 2010, the courts have not been as liberal as it was in the past towards accepting the slow-paced manner in which government functions as an excuse for condoning their filing delays. It is however important to point out that, like University of Delhi which the Supreme Court has distinguished in the instant case, Koting Lamkang which it has chosen to rely upon is also three-judge bench decision of the Supreme Court. Even after the Koting Lamkang decision, there are several decisions of the Supreme Court itself which followed the principles laid down in Living Media India Limited & Anr. which do not considers the axiomatic slow-paced functioning of the government, as a valid cause for condonation. In any event, a narration of facts and timeline of events that occurred with admitted negligence should not be treated as an ‘explanation’ and treated as ‘sufficient cause’ for condoning the delay.
Allowing condonation of inordinate delays merely because it is the government who is seeking such condonation and because they are able to give a narration of how the files move, is an encouragement for the government bodies to continue their lethargic approach towards matters of significance even in the future. If the matter is of public interest, or is a matter of high significance the government should not carry out a languid approach and if such an approach is taken, an analogy ought to be drawn that such matter does not deserve to be given a lot of significance. Of course, even such an analogy should not be drawn without exceptions.
On one hand, the courts as well as the governments are effectively promoting and recognising electronic mode of service as fast and valid mode of service and on the other hand, the Supreme Court has set a precedent to accept the lengthy timelines taken by the government in sending and receiving physical files and approvals.
It is high time that the courts stop taking regressive positions by relying on old decisions and defeat the very purpose of having a ‘period of limitation’ by allowing condonation of delays where negligence or lethargy on the part of the state machinery is clearly showcased. Further, with the number of contrary decisions that exist on the proposition relating to condonation of delay, a more progressive precedent has to be set by preferably a higher bench of the Supreme Court.
2. (1987) 2 SCC 107
3. (1988) 2 SCC 142
4. (1996) 10 SCC 634
5. (1996) 3 SCC 132
6. (2005) 3 SCC 752
7. (2019) 10 SCC 408
8. (2010) 8 SCC 685
9. (2011) 4 SCC 363.
10. (2012) 3 SCC 563
11. (2013) 12 SCC 649
12. (2020) 13 SCC 745
13. (2020) 10 SCC 654
14. (1980) 2 SCC 593
15. Supra 12
16. Supra 8
17. Union Of India (UOI) v. Brij Lal Prabhu Dayal And Ors.; AIR 1999 Raj 216
18. Ramlal, Motilal and Chhotelal v. Rew Coalfields Ltd. ; AIR 1962 SC 361
19. State of W.B v. Administrator, Howrah Municipality & Ors.; (1972)1SCC366
20. Supra 14
21. This includes facts such as government counsel applying for the certified copy of Revision Court Order after around 230 days from the date of the said order, time taken for moving of files from one administrative body to another and granting necessary approvals.
22. Supra 12
23. Supra 7
24. Supra 10