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Legal Disability Under Limitation Act, 1963

Introduction

The law is usually divided into two categories: substantive law and procedural law. While substantive law deals with the rights and liabilities of the parties to a case, procedural law determines the procedure for the enforcement of these very rights and liabilities. The Indian Contract Act, 1872, the Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Partnership Act, 1932 etc. are examples of substantive law, and the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 etc. are examples of procedural law. The Limitation Act, 1963, also comes under procedural law.[1]

However, to clearly separate the two categories of law by stating that substantive law determines rights whereas procedural law determines remedies is incorrect. Not one branch of law is confined within itself, rather it penetrates into other branches, making the law in entirety, as one. There is, as such, no clear-cut division between the two categories.[2]

The Limitation Act, 1963

Historical jurisprudence, whether of the ancient smriti writers or of the Mughal courts, had no specific law for limitation. Even under the British rule, the law of limitation was not uniform. The three Supreme Courts established at the presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta followed the English Law of Limitation, whereas the mofussil courts applied different laws, acts and regulations. It was only in 1862, that the first Limitation Act came, and was made applicable to the country as a whole, and was later replaced by the succeeding Acts of 1871, 1877 and 1908.

In 1963, the Limitation Act was enacted keeping in mind the suggestions and recommendations of the Law Commission of India[3], and is applicable at present.

The law of limitation propounds repose, peace and justice. It extinguishes the demands of the State and ends title. It raises the presumption that a right which is not exercised for a long time becomes non-existent. It considers the fact that the rights of the parties are not in a state of constant doubt or uncertainty.[4] Limitation law is founded on public policy and secures peace, suppresses fraud and perjury, and quickens diligence. The two maxims defining limitation law are:

  1. Interest reipublicae ut sit finis litium, which means that the interest of the State requires that there should be an end to litigation
  2. Vigilantibus non dormientibus jura subveniunt, which means that the law assists the vigilant and not those who sleep over their rights

Long and dormant claims are a source of cruelty instead of justice, because the parties have to go through an immeasurable amount of time before finally being able to receive justice. Also, in such claims, defendants or even plaintiffs may lose important evidence which would otherwise prove their claim. And, most importantly, a person with a reasonable claim is dutybound to pursue the same with reasonable diligence.

Limitation law, in no way, aims to destroy the rights of the parties; it is only to ensure that the parties do not use dilatory tactics to seek their remedy.[5] Also, following the rule that “crime never dies”, the Limitation Act does not apply to criminal proceedings, except of course where special provisions are instituted for that purpose.[6]

Plea of Limitation

Section 3 of the Limitation Act mentions the bar of limitation, which affects the jurisdiction of the court. It states that every suit, appeal or application preferred after the prescribed period shall be dismissed, even though limitation has not been raised as defence. If a party gets the favour of limitation, the jurisdiction of the court is ousted.[7] Section 3 casts a duty upon the court where such suit, appeal or application is instituted, to dismiss it if it is beyond the limitation period. Whether or not the defence has raised such a plea[8], Section 3 is peremptory in this nature.

Thus, it has been held that a plea of limitation can be raised and can be instituted at any stage of the proceedings, provided it is on admitted and undisputed facts and not requires investigation of facts.[9]

The period of limitation starts running from the point the right to sue becomes existent in favour of a party. A right to sue will come into existence only when there is an accrual of right, which is asserted in the suit or proceeding. Section 4 states that if the limitation period expires on a day when the court is closed, i.e. a suit cannot be filed in the court, such suit or appeal may be filed when the court reopens.

Extension of the Period of Limitation

The limitation period can be extended in certain cases, and Section 5 of the Act states that a suit or appeal may be filed even after lapse of limitation period provided the plaintiff had sufficient cause for not being able to file the same. In such cases, the court has to decide the case on merits and not simply throw it away because of a technical problem such as delay of filing the case.

But the phrase “sufficient cause” is extensive, and what exactly falls within it, is not defined. It is usually construed liberally by the courts to advance justice[10], but this discretion needs to be exercised judiciously. In Collector (LA) v. Katiji[11], the Supreme Court laid down certain principles when an appeal or application is preferred outside the period of limitation:

  • Ordinarily, a litigant would not be entitled to earn any benefit if he lodges a late appeal.
  • However, sometimes meritorious matters may be thrown away simply because of refusing to condone delay, and justice may be defeated as a result.
  • The doctrine of “every day’s delay must be explained” need not be applied irrationally or in a pedantic way. It should be used based on common-sense.
  • If substantial justice and technical considerations are pitted against each other, substantial justice must always be preferred.
  • There can be no presumption that delay is deliberate, or due to culpable negligence, or mala fide. In fact, a litigant does not benefit from delay, but rather runs a risk.
  • The judiciary is known not for legalising injustice due to technical faults but for the capability to remove injustice and is expected to do the same.

Therefore, the question of “sufficient cause” cannot have a universal answer. It depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. But the Limitation Act, under sections 4 to 24, mentions certain circumstances where lapse of limitation does not bar institution of suit. One such circumstance is legal disability.

Section 6 of Limitation Act, 1963 lays down legal disability as an exception to the limitation period. If a person who is entitled to institute a suit or an application, at the time when the prescribed period is running, is a minor, insane, or an idiot, such person may file the suit or application within the same period once such disability has ceased to exist. Further, if a person is affected by two disabilities at once, or if, before one disability could cease, he is affected by another, then he may file a suit or application once both the disabilities have ceased to exist. Also, if a person’s disability causes him to die, then a legal representative of such person is entitled to file the suit or application.

If the legal representative is also affected with a disability at the time of death of the person whom he represents, the suit or application may be filed once the disability(s) ceases to exist. Such disability must be existing at the time from when the period of limitation is to be calculated.

Section 7 of Limitation Act talks about legal disability in case there is more than one plaintiff for filing the suit. In case any one of the persons is under a disability but discharge can be given to all of them without concurrence of the disabled person, the others are bound to file the suit or application within the prescribed period. But in case no discharge can be given, they are not bound to follow the limitation period, until one of them becomes capable without the concurrence of others.

Section 6 of Limitation Act provides for three legal disabilities: minority, insanity and idiocy. As for minority, the Indian Majority Act of 1875 states that a person becomes major when he/she attains the age of 18 years.

As for insanity, the courts recognise only legal insanity and not medical insanity. To prove legal insanity, behaviour, antecedents and attendance are required to be taken into consideration.

In Hari Singh Gond v. State of Madhya Pradesh[12], four types of non-compos mentis were laid down, which included idiots and lunatics, made non-compos mentis by illness, and a person who is drunk. Accordingly, an idiot is someone who depicts unusual behaviour by birth, unlike a lunatic, or an intoxicated person. Idiocy is usually permanent, and cannot be acquired during the lifetime, unlike lunacy.

In Bailochan Karan v. Basant Kumari Naik[13], it was held that only a person who is entitled to the suit may claim the privilege of Section 6. In Zafir v. Amiruddin[14], it was held that Section 6 is applicable to the plaintiff only when either he is, or one of the several plaintiffs are, an idiot, minor, or insane.

Once the time of limitation begins to run, a subsequent disability will not stop it.[15]

Conclusion

The law of limitation only bars action and not defence, that too, in a reasonable way. Further, the Limitation Act applies only to courts, and to proceedings which can be initiated in a court of law. Tribunals, quasi-judicial bodies and other adjudicating authorities do not fall within the ambit of Limitation Act.[16]

Article 14 of the Constitution of India provides for equality before law as well as equal protection of law. The doctrine of equality needs to be applied by the courts to all litigants uniformly. But the realities of life must not be ignored while doing so. If appeals or applications are brought before the courts after lapse of limitation period, and are dismissed solely on the ground of delay, the sufferer will only be the public at large. The expression of “sufficient cause”, therefore, must be approached in a justice-oriented manner.[17]

What is the significance of the Limitation Act, 1963?

Long and dormant claims are a source of cruelty instead of justice, because the parties have to go through an immeasurable amount of time before finally being able to receive justice. The main purpose of the Limitation Act is to give a certain period of time to an aggrieved party to bring an action to claim remedy, before such action ceases to exist. The law of limitation propounds repose, peace and justice. It extinguishes the demands of the State and ends title. It raises the presumption that a right which is not exercised for a long time becomes non-existent. It considers the fact that the rights of the parties are not in a state of constant doubt or uncertainty. It helps in the speedy deliverance of justice so that parties do not linger with cases for years.

What is meant by legal disability under the Limitation Act?

Legal disability is an exception to the general rule of limitation. If a person is insane or a minor during the time in which he is obliged to bring an action against his wrongdoer, then the limitation period will not bar him from bringing an action once his insanity or minority has ended.

What is meant by “sufficient cause” under the Limitation Act?

The phrase “sufficient cause” is extensive, and what exactly falls within it, is not defined. Any cause that is reasonable enough so as to excuse the period of limitation would come under the ambit of this phrase. It is usually construed liberally by the courts to advance justice, but this discretion needs to be exercised judiciously.

[1] A. S. K. Krishnappa Chettiar v. S. V. V. Somiah, AIR 1964 SC 227.

[2] Bharat Barrel & Drum Mfg. Co. Ltd. v. ESI Corpn., (1971) 2 SCC 860.

[3] Law Commission of India, “3rd Report on the Limitation Act, 1908” (July, 1956).

[4] Nav Rattanmal v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1961 SC 1704; Shanti Kumar R. Canji v. Home Insurance Co. of New York, (1974) 2 SCC 387.

[5] S. Ganesharaju v. Narasamma, (2013) 11 SCC 341.

[6] The Limitation Act, 1963 (Act No. 36 of 1963), ss. 114, 115, 131, 132.

[7] Foreshore Coop. Housing Society Ltd. v. Praveen D. Desai, (2015) 6 SCC 412.

[8] Noharlal Verma v. District Coop. Central Bank Ltd., AIR 2009 SC 664.

[9] Banarsi Das v. Kanshi Ram, AIR 1963 SC 1165.

[10] State of W. B. v. Howrah Municipality, (1972) 1 SCC 366; Collector (LA) v. Katiji, (1987) 2 SCC 107.

[11] (1987) 2 SCC 107.

[12] AIR 2009 SC 768.

[13] AIR 1999 SC 876.

[14] AIR 1963 Pat. 108.

[15] Supra note 6, s. 9.

[16] Sushila Devi v. Ramanandan Prasad, (1976) I SCC 361.

[17] Union of India v. Ram Charan, AIR 1964 SC 215; State of Rajasthan v. Jaimal, 1991 Supp (2) SCC 286; State of U. P. v. Harish Chandra, (1996) 9 SCC 309.

[18] (1987) 2 SCC 107.

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Zara Suhail Ahmed

Zahra is a student at Aligarh Muslim University, pursuing a 5-year B.A. LLB course. Currently in her 4th year, Zahra opted for Law after completing most part of her schooling from Cambridge School, New Delhi. Zahra has interned under a few lawyers and firms, participated in various moot courts and similar events, and is proficient in research and written content. A strong believer that education is the greatest virtue, Zahra seeks to learn from every platform and individual, whether working alone or as a team. Although Zahra is keenly interested to pursue ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution) as a career, she has kept her options open and is interested in examining the different career prospects that her profession has to offer. Zahra has diversified interests apart from her professional life as well. Not only a successful lawyer, but she also aspires to become a productive human being.

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