By: Varun Rao
The Limitation Act (hereinafter ‘the Act’) prescribes time limits for various suits under which an affected party may approach the court. The aim of the Act is two-fold: first, to ensure litigants are attentive with regard to their remedy in court, and second, to reprimand those who fail to approach the court, by barring any approach to the court after the time period. By maintaining a fixed duration for any legal remedy, late claimants lose the right to stale claims; thus ensuring that the court answers to more recent issues. Any scrutinising of these issues after the lapsing of the prescribed time period will duly prejudice the opposing party.
Concurrently, the status quo of the Limitation Act is that it is not applicable to tribunals. Rather, the established norm is that the Act is strictly meant to be applied before courts or judicial authorities, and not quasi-judicial authorities such as tribunals unless explicitly specified in the statute itself. Courts have, on many occasions, cited that the articles and sections of the Limitation Act relate to courts in the strict sense – encompassing “the judicial branch of the state or Courts established by the constitution”, and thus, follow codes of civil or criminal procedure. Courts have hence opined that it is mandatory to file the suits, appeals and applications in courts, and not tribunals.
Notwithstanding, tribunals must not be considered as a flowering pot for claims which are either expired or are entirely time-barred. On these lines, the author will rebut the presumption of non-applicability of the Limitation Act in tribunals. This shall be done through a two-pronged argument – first, the tribunals’ close nexus to courts themselves, and second, by approaching the Act liberally.
PARALLELS TO A COURT
One of the key arguments made by jurists and scholars alike against tribunals is the recognized dichotomy between courts and tribunals. This demarcation disqualifies tribunals under the Act. If we analyse the intrinsic nature of tribunals, a case may be made for their inclusion under the Act. It can be argued that tribunals are cut from the same cloth of courts, for two reasons:
There is no mention of a ‘civil court’ in Section 14 of the Limitation Act, rather, it mentions only ‘court’. Various case laws have explained that tribunals “having the trappings of a court would be a ‘court’ within the meaning of this Article.” The same courts are authorised with supplementary and auxiliary powers to perform their responsibilities.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court in its decisions has come out and taken the stand that all tribunals may not qualify as courts, though there are certain tribunals that do. Determination of whether a tribunal qualifies as a court is murky and lacks definite parameters. Its qualification is contingent on facts, functions of the tribunal, and provisions of the Act determining the tribunal. Tribunals in this regard have been quite outspoken and proclaimed that the word is of wide-ranging meaning, with judicial power being exercised across the frontiers of courts and tribunals. Jurists, albeit in minority, have posited that tribunals satisfy all features of a judiciary body with proportionate and substantial powers. It can thus be seen that tribunals accomplish wholly judicial functions. Tribunals, such as the National Green Tribunal, are even vested with original, appellate and special jurisdiction.
Courts have later delineated that tribunals are empowered, along the same lines as ordinary civil courts, by the Code of Civil Procedure. Analogous responsibilities of the tribunals include determining of issues, hearing of witnesses, examination and summoning witnesses on oath, and the power to hear parties and inspect their documents. In order to stand as a court, it is pivotal that in addition to having trappings of a court, the tribunal must be able to provide a conclusive judgment. The judgment must comprise of “authoritativeness and finality,” both being key factors behind a judicial pronouncement. Powers of a court are further promoted through specialized tribunals which pertain to cases of a specific matter. These tribunals, much like courts, are able to maintain judicial autonomy and consist of members of “judicial acumen and expertise”; members who are expected to possess considerable knowledge and experience in various fields, in addition to enjoying legal acumen to appositely answer complex questions of the law that may come up.
The case of Union of India v Namit Sharma succinctly presents a defence for tribunals:
Tribunals are vested with the powers to adjudicate and determine the disputes between the parties which fall within the scope and ambit of its jurisdiction, […]. The Tribunal is a part of an ordinary hierarchy in the administration of justice and is akin to a Court. The Supreme Court has also held that though the independence of judiciary, strictly applied to the Court system, by necessary implication, it would also apply to Tribunals whose functioning is quasi-judicial and akin to the Court system
The second branch of the author’s argument for the inclusion of tribunals under the Limitation Act is through a liberal approach towards the Limitation Act. Analysing the case of M.P. Steel Corporation v Commissioner of Central Excise, the bench was confronted with whether the time consumed in tribunal proceedings would be exempt from the period of limitation under Section 14 of the Limitation Act. The status quo laid down that no exemption was possible due to its inapplicability as a tribunal.
Justice Nariman, in the face of this, put forward an expansive approach to viewing Section 14. Explaining that while Section 14 may not find its place in the face of tribunals, it would be beneficial to scrutinize the principles on which the section was based. Principles which would further the cause of justice, and would apply, regardless of lex. Reason and justice, after all, was the crux of law. Section 14 as a result, could be liberally interpreted to include tribunals under the umbrella of the term ‘court’. In addition to this, he noted that Section 6 of the Limitation Act was of similar nature, and was backed with case law supporting the argument for a liberal understanding of the Act.
Picking up after Justice Nariman, the law brought through legislation is meant to represent integrity, equity and fairness. The overarching aim of each law is to ensure public welfare progresses, which runs in parallel to a law’s other objective – justice and reason. In situations where the Limitation Act is held inapplicable, it would do good to impart the same principles, and to approach the case in a ‘broad-based manner’. The unsuitability of a section must not bar application of the principles behind the section.
The author follows the rationale of Justice Nariman in bringing tribunals under the Limitation Act, in furtherance of justice. If a section of the Limitation Act can be read alongside with the statute which allows for the creation of that particular tribunal, without violating the statute, and would thus advance justice, then it is feasible for the court to take up such a humanistic approach.
The widespread notion that tribunals are disqualified under the ambit of the Limitation Act must be set aside. The author has pushed forward the negation of the notion by highlighting the considerable overlap between courts and tribunals, and any disregard for the latter based on the differences should not be read pedantically. Case law in minority has pleaded for legislation to be read liberally, whilst acknowledging the notions of justice and reason. It has been opined that while the Limitation Act may be held inapplicable, it would be unjust to ignore the principles behind it entirely.
 UN Mitra, Law of Limitation and Prescription, (Vol 2, 17th edn, 2015).
(Varun is currently a 3rd year undergraduate at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.)