A lawyer who won acquittal for a gangster triumphantly informed him, “Justice has been done!” The don misunderstood the rhetoric and said in panic, “File an appeal immediately!”
That’s how quickly someone who has a stake in the outcome of a case would react. But the government, the largest litigant in any court, may take months or even years to file its appeal against an adverse judgment. Eventually, if the courts dismiss such appeals on grounds of delay itself, tax payers will be the ultimate losers.
Last month, the Supreme Court decided a case in which authorities in Mumbai took seven years and 108 days to move an appeal (Maniben Shah vs Municipal Corporation). The Bombay High Court had “condoned the delay” — a common phrase heard in all courts when appeals are filed beyond the period set by the Limitation Act.
The city civil court had decreed the suit of a property owner in 2003. The authorities asked for a copy of the order only in 2010. With such blatant negligence, the Supreme Court asked for reasons for the inordinate delay.
Some reasons cited were laughable but for the tragic insight they gave into the working of the judicial system. One was that the papers that were required for filing the appeal were “misplaced and not traceable in spite of good efforts”. Meanwhile, the advocate who handled the case was transferred to the criminal section and, therefore, lost track and the appeal was not “filed due to oversight and heavy workload”. The officer in charge also put forward a muddled tale of his leave records, his transfers to different departments, fault of the clerks in not “putting up” the file before him and other woes.
The Supreme Court found at least five “gaping holes in the story concocted by the corporation,” which the high court had overlooked. “They cannot but be treated as poor apology for the exercise of discretion by the court under Section 5 of the Limitation Act,” the judgment said while dismissing the appeal moved by the authorities in the high court.
The trouble with such dismissal of appeals only on grounds of delays on the part of babus is that good causes are lost and the public suffers for the slackness of the authorities.
In economic cases, the losses owing to lethargy are astronomical. The latest figures placed in Parliament showed that last year the money locked in court cases rose and touched Rs 4.37 lakh crore. Two years ago, the income-tax department moved the Supreme Court for condoning delays in filing 700 appeals against tax tribunal orders.
Delays are largely owing to a long bureaucratic process involving several departments, the assessing officer, standing committee and lawyers. The Comptroller and Auditor General had made a study of such delays in 2003 and found that they were caused mainly because of negligence in following the rules that are already in place. Delays occur at all stages: for example, in receipt of certified copy, submission of papers to the board, drafting by the panel of counsel and so on.
Judges face a dilemma in such cases. If they condone the delay, it would encourage lethargy among litigants, especially the authorities. On the other hand, if they do not condone the delay and insist on strict deadlines set by the statutes, litigants with genuine explanations will suffer and their rights would be snuffed out.
The worst offenders are government departments, local authorities and public sector entities. In one case, the Supreme Court ordered an enquiry into the delay of more than four years and directed that the loss suffered by the government corporation should be recovered from the guilty officers (Oriental Aroma Chemical Industries vs Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation). The Gujarat High Court had pardoned the delay.
The Supreme Court has found signs of collusion in some cases. A “classic example” of engineered delay was the case State of Karnataka vs Y Mooideen Kunhi. The state government filed an appeal in the Karnataka High Court 14 years after it lost a case before the land tribunal. The government pleaded for condonation of delay, which was rejected. Its appeal to the Supreme Court invited condemnation for the behaviour of officials.
The court asked the government to pay Rs 10 lakh before hearing the appeal. It also directed the government to initiate action against “every person responsible for the alleged fraud and delay in pursuing legal remedies, fix responsibility and recover the amount from them”. The Supreme Court remarked that delays are “skilfully managed” and it is done “to protect unscrupulous litigants at the cost of public interest or exchequer”.