By Jehangir Gai
Courts are generally liberal in condoning the delay in proceedings by the government. Here is a case where the National Commission has come down heavily against government officials, and held them at par with other litigants.
Salamudeen had got a transformer installed in May 2009, which got burnt in July 2011. The Electricity Board did not repair it, despite repeated requests. So, he filed a complaint before the Panchkula District Forum. According to a circular issued in 2008, the Board was responsible for maintenance of the transformer after the two-year warranty period. But the Board claimed a 2010 circular made the contractor responsible for six years after installation.
Since the transformer was installed in 2009, the Forum held that it was governed by the circular in force at that time. The Board was directed to replace it. The Haryana State Commission dismissed the Board's appeal challenging this order. The Board approached the National Commission. An application was made to condone the delay of 43 days in filing the revision. The Board explained the delay was due to time taken in getting approvals at various levels, after comprehensive examination of the file. Thereafter, the standing counsel is nominated, who studied the case, discussed it with the official and drafted the revision. Thus, the delay was unintentional.
The National Commission observed that delay can be condoned only if 'sufficient cause' is shown. A liberal construction can be given to advance substantial justice only when it is found the delay in bonafide. The period of limitation prescribed under the Consumer Protection Act for expeditious adjudication of consumer disputes gets defeated if highly belated petitions are entertained, as held by the Supreme Court in the case of Anshul Aggarwal versus New Okhla Industrial Development Authority. Likewise, in the case of Post Master General & Ors versus Living Media India, the Supreme Court observed that the object for fixing a time limit for litigation is based on public policy, for ensuring that parties do not resort to dilatory tactics.
Public interest is of paramount consideration in exercising discretion for condonation of delay. When the persons concerned are conversant with the issues including the prescribed period of limitation, and have competent persons familiar with court proceedings, they cannot claim a separate period of limitation. In the absence of plausible and acceptable explanation, there is no reason to condone delay mechanically merely because the applicant is the government or its department. Delay due to an impersonal government machinery and bureaucratic methodology of making several notes is unacceptable in view of the modern technologies now available. The law of limitation binds everybody, including the government.
Going by these observations, the National Commission held it was the right time to inform all the government bodies, their agencies and instrumentalities that unless they have a reasonable and acceptable explanation for a delay, there is no need to accept the usual explanation that the file was kept pending due to procedural red-tape. Government departments are under a special obligation to ensure they perform their duties with diligence and commitment. Condonation of delay is an exception and should not be used as an anticipated benefit by government departments. The law shelters everyone in the same manner and it cannot be bent to help government departments. The National Commission dismissed the Electricity Board's Revision, and imposed costs of Rs 10,000 to be paid to the Consumer Legal Aid Account in eight weeks, which if delayed will carry interest of nine per cent. This amount was directed to be recovered from the salaries of the delinquent officers who had been pursuing a meritless litigation, resulting in wastage of the public exchequer. The Commission directed that an affidavit giving the details of the officers from whose salaries the cost had been recovered would also have to be filed within eight weeks.
This landmark verdict will hopefully make government officials responsible and accountable.
The author is a consumer activist