On 23rd March 2020, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu cognizance of the extraordinary circumstances prevailing on account of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant challenges before litigants in filing cases in courts and tribunals across the country. The Court ruled that the “period of limitation in all such proceedings, irrespective of the limitation prescribed under the general law or Special Laws whether condonable or not shall stand extended w.e.f. 15th March 2020 till further order/s to be passed by this Court in present proceedings.” This Order (“Extension Order”) was passed by the Court in exercise of its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution and declared to be binding on all courts and tribunals in India under Article 141 of the Constitution. Given the general nature of the Extension Order, its precise scope and extent is bound to give rise to further litigation. One such instance is the Supreme Court’s recent judgment in Sagufa Ahmed v. Upper Assam Plywood Products Pvt. Ltd.
The Issue and Decision in Sagufa Ahmed
In Sagufa Ahmed, the Court was called upon to decide whether the benefit of the Extension Order could be claimed by a litigant where the period of limitation expired prior to 15th March 2020 and the extended period upto which delay may be condoned (“Extended Period”) expired on or after 15th March 2020. The Court answered this question in the negative and held that the Extension Order would be applicable only if the period of limitation (and not the Extended Period) expired on or after 15th March 2020.
The central reason behind the Court’s conclusion was premised on its interpretation of the phrase ‘period of limitation’ used in the Extension Order. The Court referred to Section 10 of the General Clauses Act, 1897 and Section 4 of the Limitation Act, 1963. Both these provisions state that where the ‘prescribed period’ for any act/filing expires on a day when the court is closed, the limitation period is deemed to expire on the day the court reopens. The phrase ‘prescribed period’ is defined in Section 2(j) of the Limitation Act to mean the ‘period of limitation’, i.e. the period specified for instituting a proceeding, and it does not include the Extended Period. Section 4 is inapplicable where the Extended Period expires on a day on which the court is closed. Therefore, the Court held that the benefit of the Extension Order would not be available where the period of limitation has expired before 15th March 2020 and the Extended Period has commenced on or before this date.
The Errors in the Court’s Reasoning and the Partial Undoing of ‘Complete Justice’
There cannot be any quarrel with the Court’s interpretation of Section 4 of the Limitation Act and its reliance placed on the decision in Assam Urban Water Supply and Sewerage Board v. Subash Projects and Marketing Limited for this purpose. However, it is submitted that the application of Section 4 of the Limitation Act, whether directly or by analogy, to the issue before the Court in Sagufa Ahmed is incorrect and leads to an unjust outcome for litigants. This is for the following two reasons.
First, as the Extension Order records, the exclusion of time with effect from 15th March 2020 is on account of the practical difficulties faced by litigants in instituting proceedings in courts and tribunals. The Extension Order was passed under Article 142 of the Constitution and without any reference to Section 4 of the Limitation Act. Section 4 of the Limitation Act applies to a situation “when the court is closed”, which, even as per the wide scope of the phrase stipulated in the Explanation to Section 4, has not always been the case during the lockdown. Consequently, Section 4 has no bearing on the interpretation of the Extension Order.
Second, the phrase ‘period of limitation’ in the Extension Order must be construed in light of the context in which the Extension Order was passed, and the Court in Sagufa Ahmed could not have simply borrowed the meaning of this phrase from the Limitation Act. Ordinarily, where a statute allows litigants to institute proceedings during the Extended Period and seek condonation of delay, the litigants are entitled to avail this opportunity. The fact that it is the court’s prerogative whether or not to condone the delay does not dilute a litigant’s right to institute proceedings during the Extended Period and request for condonation of delay. The extraordinary circumstances that prevailed (and continue to prevail) due to the pandemic meant that litigants could not practically exercise this right. Therefore, the broad and general phraseology of the Extension Order, without any reference to the Limitation Act, must be construed to include instances where the ‘period of limitation’ expired prior to 15th March 2020. A literal interpretation of the phrase ‘period of limitation’ in the Extension Order and assigning the same meaning to it as contained in the Limitation Act is contrary to the well settled that an order of a court is not to be construed as if it were a statute.
It may be argued that the position of a litigant who is adversely affected by the principle laid down in Sagufa Ahmed is no different from one who seeks to institute proceedings during the Extended Period and is denied the benefit of Section 4 of the Limitation Act. However, this contention does not withstand further scrutiny. In the latter situation, the principle of law is clearly laid down in a statute and the annual calendar of the court/tribunal is known to the litigant in advance. The litigant is expected to arrange its affairs accordingly. On the other hand, litigants covered by the Sagufa Ahmed rule are those who have been unable to institute proceedings during the Extended Period on account of unforeseeable events, and are armed with a seemingly all-encompassing order of the Supreme Court, i.e. the Extension Order, which extends the period of limitation prescribed under all central and state legislations for instituting any proceeding. The Extension Order does not in any manner suggest that the words ‘period of limitation’ were intended to carry the same meaning as under the Limitation Act. In such circumstances, the Court’s reliance on the definition of ‘period of limitation’ in the Limitation to Act to restrict the scope of the Extension Order partly negates the ‘complete justice’ that was sought to be done in the Suo Motu Writ Petition under Article 142 of the Constitution.
Edit: This post has been edited to account for the Explanation to Section 4 in the Section titled ‘The Errors in the Court’s Reasoning and the Partial Undoing of ‘Complete Justice’