The Supreme Court order extending the limitation period in lieu of COVID-19
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which had initially resulted in the implementation of various preventive measures that hampered movement of people in the country (such as advising employees to work from home, discouraging large gatherings, the Supreme Court deciding to hear cases over video-conferencing to avoid physical interactions at the courts etc.) eventually led to the Government of India implementing a 21-day complete national lockdown from March 25, 2020 onwards in order to contain the spreading of the virus. Now, as a consequence of such restrictive measures being put in place, courts and tribunals have become inaccessible to litigants.
Even prior to the Government’s announcement of a complete national lockdown, taking suo motu cognizance of the difficulties faced by litigants in physically visiting courts and tribunals during this pandemic period, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, passed an order dated March 23, 2020, in Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No(s). 3 of 2020 (“SC Order”) extending the period of limitation for the filing of all petitions/ applications/ suits/ appeals/ all other proceedings with effect from March 15, 2020 until further orders. This SC Order is applicable to all limitation periods, under general or special laws (both Central and/ or State) and irrespective of whether it is condonable or not under such laws.
Powers conferred under Article 142 of the Constitution of India
The Supreme Court exercised its powers under Article 142[i] read with Article 141[ii] of the Constitution of India in passing the SC Order for ensuring that “complete justice” is done. Article 142 states that the Supreme Court “may pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it”. Further, by virtue of Article 141, the SC Order is binding on all courts, tribunals and authorities in the territory of India.
The broadness of the power conferred upon the Supreme Court under Article 142 in ensuring that “complete justice” is done has been discussed in various judgements. In the case of Supreme Court Bar Association v. Union of India[iii], while a constitutional bench of the Supreme Court recognized that the amplitude of power under Article 142 is wide, it also clarified that given that such power is curative in nature, it does not authorize the court to “supplant” substantive law applicable to the particular case or cause under consideration.
Exception to Section 9 of the Limitation Act, 1963
Section 9 of the Limitation Act, 1963[iv], which deals with the continuous running of time in relation to limitation period, states that once the time for limitation has begun to run, no subsequent disability or inability to institute a suit or make an application can stop the running of time under the limitation period. The only legislated exception to Section 9 is that when letters of administration to the estate of a creditor have been granted to his debtor, then the running of the period of limitation for a suit to recover the debt shall be suspended while the administration continues. The abovementioned SC Order is an exception to Section 9 as it essentially “freezes” the limitation clock after it has begun on account of the present pandemic situation and inaccessibility of courts/ tribunals.
An interpretation of the SC Order
While it is clear from the SC Order that extensions will be applicable to proceedings for which the limitation period ends during the subsistence of the order, the SC Order does not clearly address whether extensions will be given for the time period that courts were inaccessible, to proceedings for which the limitation period will end after the SC Order is lifted. In this scenario, given that the SC Order is an exception to Section 9 of the Limitation Act and going by the stance taken by the court in the Supreme Court Bar Association case with respect to the extent of power exercisable under Article 142 by the Supreme Court, a strict interpretation of the SC Order should be adopted. Thus, a conservative but cautious analysis of the SC Order would imply that extensions would only be applicable to filings for which the limitation period ends during the subsistence of the SC Order. Consequently, for filings in which the limitation period expires after the moratorium under the SC Order is lifted, litigants should be prepared to file their petitions/ applications/ suits/ appeals/ all other proceedings in conformity with the actual limitation period, devoid of any extension.
Kunal Kumbhat, Partner
Moneshaa Raghunath, Associate
[i] 142. Enforcement of decrees and orders of Supreme Court and unless as to discovery, etc.- (1) The Supreme Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction may pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it, and any decree so passed or orders so made shall be enforceable throughout the territory of India in such manner as may be prescribed by or under any law made by Parliament and, until provision in that behalf is so made, in such manner as the President may by order prescribe
(2) Subject to the provisions of any law made in this behalf by Parliament, the Supreme Court shall, as respects the whole of the territory of India, have all and every power to make any order for the purpose of securing the attendance of any person, the discovery or production of any documents, or the investigation or punishment of any contempt of itself
[ii] 141. Law declared by Supreme Court to be binding on all courts – The law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India
[iii] Supreme Court Bar Association v. Union of India, AIR 1998 SC 1895
[iv] 9. Continuous running of time.— Where once time has begun to run, no subsequent disability or inability to institute a suit or make an application stops it: Provided that where letters of administration to the estate of a creditor have been granted to his debtor, the running of the period of limitation for a suit to recover the debt shall be suspended while the administration continues.