Application of Section 5 of the Limitation Act to Proceedings before Tribunals

A remedy to a right comes with a fixed lifespan. The purpose of the Limitation Act of 1963 [‘LMA’] is to provide for a limitation period to extinguish the remedy. Section 5 of the LMA talks about condoning the delay exercised in the filing of an appeal or application. The scope of the section excludes suits from its application. The delay is condoned if the applicant has sufficient cause to satisfy the Court that the appeal or application could not be filed within the prescribed limit. The issue involved in the topic at hand is, does Section 5 of LMA include tribunal proceedings within its application.

Series of cases have ruled that Section 5 is inapplicable to tribunals and quasi-judicial proceedings.[1] Further, cases have also established non-application of Section 5 in certain Acts like Agricultural Income-tax Appellate Tribunal,[2] Arbitration and Conciliation Act,[3] etc. The author will show that Section 5 does not apply to tribunal proceedings for two reasons- first, the word ‘Court’ does not include tribunals, and second, that the legislative intent does not suggest the inclusion of tribunals within the ambit of Section 5.

Non-parallelism of Courts and Tribunals

An important question that has been raised while discussing the application of LMA is the difference between courts and tribunals. Further, is there even a need to chip-off ‘tribunals’ from the broad system of ‘courts’ working in India? In this section, the author will show how there exists a non-parallelism between the tribunals and courts at various levels, and thus, tribunals should be dealt with separately than courts.

The primary sources of interpretation do not define the terms ‘courts’ and ‘tribunals’. The only definition of ‘courts’ provided by the Indian Evidence Act[4] does not have an exhaustive meaning. Therefore, for this essay, the meaning of these terms is derived by interpreting various case laws. Courts are a set-up through which justice is administered to the public by authorities who are in power to maintain and uphold the rights of others. Further, they declare punishment and impose penalties for adjudication of disputes.[5] Tribunals are set-ups, created through statutes to adjudicate on a limited set of disputes referring to a particular stature, thus limiting their power.[6]

A threshold for creating a line between tribunals and courts was laid down in the case of Harinagar Sugar Mills Ltd. v. Shyam Sunder Jhunjhunwala,[7] the Supreme Court accepting the importance of tribunals, clearly recognized the difference between Courts and Tribunals. They recognized Courts to be of ordinary civil nature deriving authority from the Constitution. Courts are majorly of a permanent nature with a wide jurisdiction to try any suit or take up any cause. Tribunals were considered as a solution to reduce the pressure on over-burdened courts.[8] They follow a similar methodology as that of Court, but function in a more liberal way. Sometimes tribunals are made for a purpose totally different from that of courts, i.e., “to implement some administrative policy or to determine controversies arising out of some administrative law”.[9]

A different standard laid down in Kihoto Hollohan vZachilhu[10] stated that “all tribunals are not courts, though all courts are tribunals.” The author opposes the view laid down by this court since this judgement sets co-centric spheres for courts and tribunals. It does not take into account various administrative tribunals or private tribunals which do not fall within the ambit of judicial tribunals or courts. Tribunals and courts should be considered as two separate set-ups. Even though the two might have an overlap at some point, but the idea behind the operation of the two is very different. Courts are of a general nature available for all types of disputes, except for those particular areas for which a tribunal has been set up. Courts, unlike tribunals, follow a strict prescribed procedure[11] and have wider powers. This is evident from the fact that tribunals do not have the inherent power to do complete justice,[12] or take suo moto cognizance. Unlike courts, tribunals cannot decide ultra vires and are not strictly bound by principles of res judicata[13] and estoppel. Thus, tribunals are much less a court, by virtue of the limitations imposed on their working.

The view supported is that tribunals cannot be considered equivalent to courts even though both might have an overlap of functions to some extent. It is because of the fact that the overall purpose behind creating tribunals is not to substitute courts but to provide for an additional justice delivery mechanism, which works like a court in certain ways. Similarity exists in the ways the two set-ups deliver justice, but the source of authority for the two varies. Tribunals are made through separate legislation which provides them the power to deliver justice. Thus, binding the tribunals to LMA would create an outside hindrance to the statute which provides it the authority to work. Further, the qualification of members of the tribunals and judges of the court also varies. Judges are learned men having knowledge in all fields of law, and they adjudicate on matters relating to various categories. Tribunals are bodies consisting of people appointed to decide on issues related to specific laws.[14] The author, therefore, promotes the idea that not all tribunals are a subset of courts, and thus, all tribunals should not be considered parallel to Courts.

Legislative Intent Behind Section 5 of LMA

Apart from the non-parallelism between courts and tribunals, another noteworthy reason behind the non-application of Section 5 of LMA to tribunals is the legislative intent behind the section. The wordings of Section 5 specifically mention the phrase “if the appellant satisfies the court that he had sufficient cause.”[15] A bare reading of the section suggests that the drafters intended the LMA to be restricted to court proceedings. “Scheme and language of the provision unmistakably show that the legislature has deliberately excluded the application of the principles” underlying section 5 of LMA to tribunal proceedings.[16]

Further, the LMA came into force in the year 1963, a time when tribunals were already in place in India. Still, there is no mention of the application of any provision of the Act of tribunals. The various Law Commission Reports have also never stressed on making tribunals bound by provisions of the LMA.[17] Certain other acts, like, the Constitution of India, implemented in 1950, use the phrase “courts and tribunals”[18] where the intent is to specify the usage of particular provisions to both the set-ups. Not only section 5 of LMA, but also the entire Act restricts the usage of the provisions to the courts.

On various instances, courts have decided that LMA applies only to courts and prescribes limitation period for suits, appeals, and applications.[19] In the context of this settled position, the limitation law being limited to courts sufficiently justifies the existence of the statutes made for specific tribunals. Whenever the Legislature intended to impose certain limitations on proceedings of any tribunal under a statute, then the statute itself provides for some procedure for condonation of delay in certain circumstances.[20] Condonation of delay under Section 5 of LMA happens when there is sufficient cause to satisfy the court of the delay. Various statutes that provide for separate tribunals, like the Railway Claims Tribunal Act,[21]  Arbitration and Conciliation Act,[22] have provision providing for power to the tribunals to condone delay. Certain codes, like Value Added Tax Act, made specifically to resolve disputes of a particular nature are complete in nature as they lay down the forum as well as the prescribed time limit for each forum to entertain any appeal or application. If the legislature intended to apply section 5 of LMA to tribunal proceedings, specific provisions, as stated above, would become redundant.

The idea projected is that when the statute creating a tribunal itself provides for some limitation for filing an application, then such proceedings will not be subject to Section 5 of the LMA. The reason provided by the court for not subjecting revenue tribunal to LMA was that “delay in disposal of revenue cases affect the steady inflow of revenues and the financial stability of the State”.[23] Tribunals are made to fasten the proceedings in that field of law which they deal with. Thus, subjecting tribunals to section 5 LMA would create an external influence hindering the progress in solving cases.

Furthermore, the entire purpose of creating tribunals is to fasten the proceedings and reduce the piled burden of files in civil courts. If LMA is made applicable to tribunals as well, the purpose behind introducing tribunals will get affected. Each time an appeal or application for delay is condoned, it increases the average time per case. The LMA provides a general standard of ‘sufficient cause’ to condone delay. But this standard is not necessarily acceptable in all cases.

Furthermore, Section 21(3) of the Administrative Tribunals Act [‘ATA’] already provides for a limitation period for State tribunals.[24] This section sets the same threshold as section 5 of LMA, and thus to avoid redundancy of provisions, section 5 should be limited to court proceedings itself. Thus, making section 5 applicable to tribunals would mean reducing their efficiency as well. Therefore, to sustain the usefulness of such codes in light of legislative intent behind section 5 of LMA, it is reasonable to confine the reach of LMA to court proceedings only.

Conclusion

Through this essay, the author presents an approach towards seeing courts and tribunals as two different set-ups and not including ‘tribunals’ within the term ‘courts.’ This explanation is in furtherance of the settled court position. The purpose behind creating tribunals is to fasten the disposal of cases. Thus, it is imperative that each tribunal follows its own system of condonation of delay rather than what is imposed under section 5 of LMA. Further, by giving them the authority to proceed according to their own statute will also help overcome the inefficiency of the tribunals. Thus, when a legislation creating a tribunal provides for a limitation clause, it is unnecessary to bind tribunals by a code made for ordinary civil courts. Additionally, this will ensure independency in the working of the tribunals.

Hence, the logical approach of excluding tribunals from application of section 5 of LMA not only helps in putting provisions of various statutes in place but also, ensures independent functioning of tribunals.


[1] Bando Bunagi v. Bhaskar Bunagi, AIR 1972 Mysore 311.

[2] Commissioner of Agricultural Income-tax v. Thalayar Rubber Industries Ltd. AIR 1981 NOC 160 (Ker).

[3] Jayant Kumar Agarwal v. K. Subba Reddy, AIR 2008 Ori 161.

[4] Indian Evidence Act, 1872, Section 3.

[5] Union of India v. R. Gandhi, President of Madras Bar Association, (2010) 11 SCC 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] AIR 1961 SC 1669.

[8] Supra, note 2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] 1992 Supp (2) SCC 651 (India).

[11] Associated Cement Companies v. P.N. Sharma, AIR 1965 SC 1595.

[12] Constitution of India, 1950, Article 142.

[13] CIT v. Kongarar Spinners Pvt. Ltd, 208 ITR 645

[14] Harinagar Sugar Mills Ltd. v. Shyam Sunder Jhunjhunwala, AIR 1961 SC 1669.

[15] Limitation Act, 1963, Section 5.

[16] Commission of Sales Tax, U.P. Lucknow v. M/s Parson Tools & Plaints Kanpur, AIR 1975 SC 1039 at 1043.

[17] 89th Law Commission Report, 3rd Law Commission Report.

[18] Constitution of India, 1950, Article 136.

[19] P.S. Narayana, Law of Limitation, 110 (2012).

[20] Commissioner of Sales Tax v. N.H. Polymers, (2008) 13 VST 73 Bom.

[21] Section 17(2), Railway Claims Tribunal Act.

[22] Proviso to section 34(3), Arbitration and Conciliation Act.

[23] Commissioner of Sales Tax v. N.H. Polymers, (2008) 13 VST 73 Bom.

[24] Section 21(3), Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985.

Soumya Gupta from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.


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