In a hard hitting and strong judgment titled The State Of Madhya Pradesh & Ors vs. Bherulal in Special Leave Petition (C) Diary No. 9217 of 2020 delivered on October 15, 2020, the Apex Court took strong exception to the governments taking for granted the period of limitation prescribed. In other words, it is high time and all the governments in our country both in the Centre and the States must now wake up to what the Apex Court has said so bluntly! The earlier they do, the better it shall be for their own interests!
To start with, the ball is set rolling in para 1 of this latest, landmark and extremely laudable judgment authored by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul for himself and Justice Dinesh Maheshwari wherein it is observed that, “The Special Leave Petition has been filed with a delay of 663 days! The explanation given in the application for condonation of delay is set out in paragraphs 3 and 4.”
Without mincing any words, the Bench then lashes out in para 2 holding that, “We are constrained to pen down a detailed order as it appears that all our counseling to Government and Government authorities have fallen on deaf ears i.e., the Supreme Court of India cannot be a place for the Governments to walk in when they choose ignoring the period of limitation prescribed. We have raised the issue that if the Government machinery is so inefficient and incapable of filing appeals/petitions in time, the solution may lie in requesting the Legislature to expand the time period for filing limitation for Government authorities because of their gross incompetence. That is not so. Till the Statute subsists, the appeals/petitions have to be filed as per the Statutes prescribed.”
Furthermore, the Bench then laments in para 3 stating that, “No doubt, some leeway is given for the Government inefficiencies but the sad part is that the authorities keep on relying on judicial pronouncements for a period of time when technology had not advanced and a greater leeway was given to the Government (Collector, Land Acquisition, Anantnag & Anr vs. Mst. Katiji & Ors. (1987) 2 SCC 187). This position is more than elucidated by the judgment of this Court in Office of the Chief Post Master General & Ors. V. Living Media India Ltd. & Anr. (2012) 3 SCC 563 where the Court observed as under:
“12) It is not in dispute that the person(s) concerned were well aware or conversant with the issues involved including the prescribed period of limitation for taking up the matter by way of filing a special leave petition in this Court. They cannot claim that they have a separate period of limitation when the Department was possessed with competent persons familiar with court proceedings. In the absence of plausible and acceptable explanation, we are posing a question why the delay is to be condoned mechanically merely because the Government or a wing of the Government is a party before us. Though we are conscious of the fact that in a matter of condonation of delay when there was no gross negligence or deliberate inaction or lack of bonafide, a liberal concession has to be adopted to advance substantial justice, we are of the view that in the facts and circumstances, the Department cannot take advantage of various earlier decisions. The claim on account of impersonal machinery and inherited bureaucratic methodology of making several notes cannot be accepted in view of the modern technologies being used and available. The law of limitation undoubtedly binds everybody including the Government.
13) In our view, it is the right time to inform all the government bodies, their agencies and instrumentalities that unless they have reasonable and acceptable explanation for the delay and there was bonafide effort, there is no need to accept the usual explanation that the file was kept pending for several months/years due to considerable degree of procedural red tape in the process. The government departments are under a special obligation to ensure that they perform their duties with diligence and commitment. Condonation of delay is an exception and should not be used as an anticipated benefit for government departments. The law shelters everyone under the same light and should not be swirled for the benefit of a few. Considering the fact that there was no proper explanation offered by the Department for the delay except mentioning of various dates, according to us, the Department has miserably failed to give any acceptable and cogent reasons sufficient to condone such a huge delay.”
Eight years hence the judgment is still unheeded!”
Truth be told, it is then stated in para 4 that, “A reading of the aforesaid application shows that the reason for such an inordinate delay is stated to be only “due to unavailability of the documents and the process of arranging the documents”. In paragraph 4 a reference has been made to “bureaucratic process works, it is inadvertent that delay occurs”.”
For the sake of clarity, it is then clearly stated in para 5 that, “A preposterous proposition is sought to be propounded that if there is some merit in the case, the period of delay is to be given a go-by. If a case is good on merits, it will succeed in any case. It is really a bar of limitation which can even shut out good cases. This does not, of course, take away the jurisdiction of the Court in an appropriate case to condone the delay.”
While stating upfront, the Bench then holds in para 6 that, “We are also of the view that the aforesaid approach is being adopted in what we have categorized earlier as “certificate cases”. The object appears to be to obtain a certificate of dismissal from the Supreme Court to put a quietus to the issue and thus, say that nothing could be done because the highest Court has dismissed the appeal. It is to complete this formality and save the skin of officers who may be at default that such a process is followed. We have on earlier occasions also strongly deprecated such a practice and process. There seems to be no improvement. The purpose of coming to this Court is not to obtain such certificates and if the Government suffers losses it is time when the concerned officer responsible for the same bears the consequences. The irony is that in none of the cases any action is taken against the officers, who sit on the files and do nothing. It is presumed that this Court will condone the delay and even in making submissions, straight away counsels appear to address on merits without referencing even to the aspect of limitation as happened in this case till we pointed out to the counsel that he must first address us on the question of limitation.”
While adopting a zero tolerance approach for such extravagant delay, the Bench then holds in para 7 that, “We are thus, constrained to send a signal and we propose to do in all matters today, where there are such inordinate delays that the Government or State authorities coming before us must pay for wastage of judicial time which has its own value. Such costs can be recovered from the officers responsible.”
What’s more, the Bench then after taking all the crucial facts into account held in para 8 that, “Looking to the period of delay and the casual manner in which the application has been worded, we consider appropriate to impose costs on the petitioner-State of Rs. 25,000/- (Rupees twenty five thousand) to be deposited with the Mediation and Conciliation Project Committee. The amount be deposited in four weeks. The amount be recovered from the officers responsible for delay in filing the special leave petition and a certificate of recovery of the said amount be also filed in this Court within the said period of time.”
Finally, it is then held in the last para 9 that, “The special leave petition is dismissed as time barred in terms aforesaid.”
On a concluding note, it can well be said that at the first instance such an ugly situation should have never arisen when the Apex Court which is the highest court was constrained to make such harsh remarks. All the Governments whether it is centre or the States must honestly and seriously introspect on what the top court has held so explicitly, elegantly and efficiently even though its anger is quite palpable with the way in which there was a delay of 663 days which under no circumstances can ever be justified! No denying!