How did a virus extend limitation?


The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced unprecedented measures on the movement of people across the country, thereby also bringing the functioning of courts and tribunals to a grinding halt. Considering the present scenario, where courts have become physically inaccessible, the Supreme Court of India (“Supreme Court”) on March 23, 2020 took suo-moto cognizance of a petition for extension of limitation and passed an order (“Order”)[1] extending the limitation prescribed either under general law or special laws, whether condonable or not, for filing any petitions, applications, suits, appeals and all other proceedings in all courts and tribunals from March 15, 2020, until passing of further orders.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the Order was being passed to “obviate such difficulties and to ensure that lawyers/litigants do not have to come physically to file such proceedings in respective Courts/Tribunals across the country”.

How did the Supreme Court pass such an Order?

The Supreme Court exercised the powers conferred to it under Article 142, read with Article 141 of the Constitution of India, to pass such an Order. As per Article 142, 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. It must be noted that 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. Article 141 prescribes that the law declared by the Supreme Court shall be binding on all courts within the territory of India. Articles 141 and 142, read together, therefore vest power in the Supreme Court to inter alia fill the lacunae in existing laws, in the interests of justice, which the legislature is not able to fill.

Pertinently, the meaning of the words “complete justice” has been discussed at length in various judgments. In K. Veeraswami v. Union of India[2], the Supreme Court held that it “has always been a law maker and its role travels beyond merely dispute settling. It is a ‘problem solver in the nebulous areas’. More recently, in Nidhi Kaim & Anr vs State Of MP And Others[3], the Supreme Court opined that “there cannot be any defined parameters, within the framework whereof, this Court would exercise jurisdiction under Article 142 of the Constitution. The complexity of administration, and of human affairs, would give room for the exercise of the power vested in this Court under Article 142, in a situation where clear injustice appears to have been caused, to any party to a lis. In the absence of any legislation to the contrary, it would be open to this Court, to remedy the situation”.

Therefore, considering the exceptional circumstances which the people of the country are presently facing, the Supreme Court deemed it was appropriate exercise its plenary powers, under Articles 141 and 142 and effectively pause the clock of limitation which ticks for every litigant, for the period starting from March 15, 2020, until further orders are passed, for the purpose of achieving complete justice.

What does the Order do?

Practically, the Order ensures that the period from March 15, 2020 will not be counted for the purpose of calculating the time limit prescribed for filing an action in a court or a tribunal, either under a general law such as the Limitation Act, 1963 or under any special law where the period of limitation is prescribed.

For instance, where, for a suit for recovery of money lent under an agreement, the time limit prescribed for filing the same is three years from when the loan is made, the period from March 15h, 2020 will not be counted for the purpose of calculating limitation. The Order will primarily ensure that where the period of limitation expires for litigants during the present period when courts are physically inaccessible, their right to approach the court and exercise their rights under law does not automatically get extinguished.

The way forward

The abrupt cessation of normal functioning of essential public infrastructure such as courts also brings to light the larger of question of increasing access to courts for the public, not only through physical access but also by using technology. While conversations exist in the background on improving connectivity and access to courts using the internet, including recent attempts by the Supreme Court and various High Courts, the present crisis has brought to the fore, the imperative need to immediately bolster Information Technology infrastructure of courts at all levels.

Uniform implementation of e-filing across all courts and tribunals, improving video-conferencing facilities and standardising websites of all courts and tribunals to make it easier for the public to access case related information are a few direct and rather simple ways to mainstream e-courts. These measures will not only mitigate further disruptions that may arise from future force majeure events but also significantly improve efficiency and radically expand access of courts to a large sections of the population where it continues to be inadequate.

[1] Suo Moto Writ Petition (Civil) No(s).3/2020

[2] (1991) 3 SCC 655

[3] AIR 2017 SC 986

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