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Do Delay And Laches Extinguish Claim For Protection Of Fundamental And Human Rights?

It is common knowledge that often there are delays & latches when we approach the Constitutional Court for protection/violation of our Fundamental & Human Rights. The delay & latches are often due to our ignorance towards law, Fear of moving against the tyranny of Government officials and often Hesitation to take a bold step against the State or it's functionalities. A million dollar question that arises is whether the Constitutional Courts should refuse to entertain and reject the petition at the very outset, due to delay & latches or being the sole protector of the Constitution grant justice to the poor & oppressed, unmindful of the delay & latches.

The Constitution Bench of the Apex Court in the case of Tilokchand Motichand & Ors vs H.B. Munshi & Anr 1970 AIR 898 categorically held that laches of the aggrieved party shall not disentitle him to get relief under Article 32 of the Constitution. The Court observed thus:

"As mentioned earlier a right to approach this Court under Art. 32 is itself a fundamental right. In that 'respect our Constitution makes a Welcome departure from many other similar Constitutions. As seen earlier a party aggrieved by the infringement of any of its fundamental rights has a right to get relief at the hands of this Court, and this Court has a duty to grant appropriate relief see Joseph Pothen v. The State of Kerala 1965 AIR 1514.

The power conferred on this Court by that Article is not a discretionary power. This power is not similar to the power conferred on the High Courts under Art. 226 of the Constitution, Hence laches on the part of an aggrieved 'party cannot deprive him of the right to get relief from this Court under Art. 32."

It would be trite to refer to the case of Tukaram Kana Joshi and Ors. v. M.I.D.C. and Ors., (2013) 1 SCC 353 wherein the Apex Court while dealing with a similar fact situation, held as follows:
9. There are authorities which state that delay and laches extinguish the right to put forth a claim. Most of these authorities pertain to service jurisprudence, grant of compensation for a wrong done to them decades ago, recovery of statutory dues, claim for educational facilities and other categories of similar cases, etc.

Though, it is true that there are a few authorities that lay down that delay and laches debar a citizen from seeking remedy, even if his fundamental right has been violated, under Article 32 or 226 of the Constitution, the case at hand deals with a different scenario altogether. Functionaries of the State took over possession of the land belonging to the appellants without any sanction of law. The appellants had asked repeatedly for grant of the benefit of compensation.

The State must either comply with the procedure laid down for acquisition, or requisition, or any other permissible statutory mode. There is a distinction, a true and concrete distinction, between the principle of "eminent domain" and "police power" of the State. Under certain circumstances, the police power of the State may be used temporarily, to take possession of property but the present case clearly shows that neither of the said powers have been exercised.

A question then arises with respect to the authority or power under which the State entered upon the land. It is evident that the act of the State amounts to encroachment, in exercise of "absolute power" which in common parlance is also called abuse of power or use of muscle power. To further clarify this position, it must be noted that the authorities have treated the land owner as a 'subject' of medieval India, but not as a 'citizen' under our constitution.

10. The State, especially a welfare State which is governed by the Rule of Law, cannot arrogate itself to a status beyond one that is provided by the Constitution. Our Constitution is an organic and flexible one. Delay and laches is adopted as a mode of discretion to decline exercise of jurisdiction to grant relief. There is another facet. The Court is required to exercise judicial discretion.

The said discretion is dependent on facts and circumstances of the cases. Delay and laches is one of the facets to deny exercise of discretion. It is not an absolute impediment. There can be mitigating factors, continuity of cause action, etc. That apart, if whole thing shocks the judicial conscience, then the Court should exercise the discretion more so, when no third party interest is involved. Thus analysed, the petition is not hit by the doctrine of delay and laches as the same is not a constitutional limitation, the cause of action is continuous and further the situation certainly shocks judicial conscience.

11. The question of condonation of delay is one of discretion and has to be decided on the basis of the facts of the case at hand, as the same vary from case to case. It will depend upon what the breach of fundamental right and the remedy claimed are and when and how the delay arose. It is not that there is any period of limitation for the Courts to exercise their powers under Article 226, nor is it that there can never be a case where the Courts cannot interfere in a matter, after the passage of a certain length of time.

There may be a case where the demand for justice is so compelling, that the High Court would be inclined to interfere in spite of delay. Ultimately, it would be a matter within the discretion of the Court and such discretion, must be exercised fairly and justly so as to promote justice and not to defeat it. The validity of the party's defence must be tried upon principles substantially equitable.

(Vide: P.S. Sadasivaswamy v. State of T.N. AIR 1974 SC 2271; State of M.P. & Ors. v. Nandlal Jaiswal & Ors., AIR 1987 SC 251; and Tridip Kumar Dingal & Ors. v. State of West Bengal & Ors., (2009) 1 SCC 768;)

12. No hard and fast rule can be laid down as to when the High Court should refuse to exercise its jurisdiction in favour of a party who moves it after considerable delay and is otherwise guilty of laches. Discretion must be exercised judiciously and reasonably. In the event that the claim made by the applicant is legally sustainable, delay should be condoned. In other words, where circumstances justifying the conduct exist, the illegality which is manifest, cannot be sustained on the sole ground of laches.

When substantial justice and technical considerations are pitted against each other, the cause of substantial justice deserves to be preferred, for the other side cannot claim to have a vested right in the injustice being done, because of a non- deliberate delay. The court should not harm innocent parties if their rights have in fact emerged, by delay on the part of the Petitioners.

(Vide: Durga Prasad v. Chief Controller of Imports and Exports & Ors., AIR 1970 SC 769; Collector, Land Acquisition, Anantnag & Anr. v. Mst. Katiji & Ors., AIR 1987 SC 1353; Dehri Rohtas Light Railway Company Ltd. v. District Board, Bhojpur & Ors., AIR 1993 SC 802; Dayal Singh & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors., AIR 2003 SC 1140; and Shankara Co-op Housing Society Ltd. v. M. Prabhakar & Ors., AIR 2011 SC 2161)"

It would also be relevant to refer to the case of Sukh Dutt Ratra vs The State of Himachal Pradesh (2022) 7SCC 508, wherein the Apex Court, dealing with a similar controversy, observed thus:

18. There is a welter of precedents on delay and laches which conclude either way--as contended by both sides in the present dispute--however, the specific factual matrix compels this Court to weigh in favour of the appellant landowners. The State cannot shield itself behind the ground of delay and laches in such a situation; there cannot be a ―limitation to doing justice.

This Court in a much earlier case -- Maharashtra SRTC v. Balwant Regular Motor Service [Maharashtra SRTC v. Balwant Regular Motor Service, (1969) 1 SCR 808 : AIR 1969 SC 329] , held : (AIR pp. 335-36, para 11)

11. ... Now the doctrine of laches in Courts of Equity is not an arbitrary or a technical doctrine. Where it would be practically unjust to give a remedy, either because the party has, by his conduct, done that which might fairly be regarded as equivalent to a waiver of it, or where by his conduct and neglect he has, though perhaps not waiving that remedy, yet put the other party in a situation in which it would not be reasonable to place him if the remedy were afterwards to be asserted in either of these cases, lapse of time and delay are most material.

But in every case, if an argument against relief, which otherwise would be just, is founded upon mere delay, that delay of course not amounting to a bar by any statute of limitations, the validity of that defence must be tried upon principles substantially equitable. Two circumstances, always important in such cases, are, the length of the delay and the nature of the acts done during the interval, which might affect either party and cause a balance of justice or injustice in taking the one course or the other, so far as relates to the remedy. "

It would be apropos to refer to a recent judgment of the Apex Court in Association of Vasanth Appts. Owners vs V. Gopinanth And Ors. 2023 SCC OnLine SC 137 wherein the Court held thus:

Doctrine of Laches and Delay cannot become a constitutional limitation on court's power.

It would be apropos to refer to the case of Vidaya Devi vs The State Of Himachal Pradesh on (2020) 2 SCC 569 wherein the Apex Court reiterated the said dictum & held thus:

10.7. The contention advanced by the State of delay and laches of the Appellant in moving the Court is also liable to be rejected. Delay and laches cannot be raised in a case of a continuing cause of action, or if the circumstances shock the judicial conscience of the Court. Condonation of delay is a matter of judicial discretion, which must be exercised judiciously and reasonably in the facts and circumstances of a case. It will depend upon the breach of fundamental rights, and the remedy claimed, and when and how the delay arose. There is no period of limitation prescribed for the courts to exercise their constitutional jurisdiction to do substantial justice.

In a case where the demand for justice is so compelling, a constitutional Court would exercise its jurisdiction with a view to promote justice, and not defeat it."

It is worthwhile to mention the case of Sunil Kumar Rai vs The State of Bihar on (2022) 3 SCC 245 wherein the Apex Court held thus:

32. "�..Further, in Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corpn., it has now been conclusively held that all fundamental rights cannot be waived (at para 29). Given these important developments in the law, the time has come for this Court to say that at least when it comes to violations of the fundamental right to life and personal liberty, delay or laches by itself without more would not be sufficient to shut the doors of the court on any petitioner." Therefore, we do not think we should be detained by the objection. We would think that delay by itself cannot be used as a weapon to Veto an action under Article 32 when violation of
Fundamental Rights is clearly at stake."

It is therefore undisputable that Laches & Delay in seeking due redressal do not bar the Constitutional Courts from granting relief particularly where human or fundamental rights have been throttled & violated.

Written By: Inder Chand Jain
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 8279945021

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