With the ongoing pandemic and the consequent lockdowns, it is as if time (-lines) has come to a standstill! The Supreme Court, in its order dated March 23, 2020: Writ Petition (Civil) No. 3/2020: took Suo Moto cognizance of the difficulties faced by litigants in approaching various courts and tribunals due to the national lockdown. All statutory deadlines, were either relaxed or extended in light of the national lockdown until further orders were passed. This was a boon for all honest litigants, who were facing genuine issues in approaching courts or tribunals.
However, in the recent case of Sagufa Ahmed & Ors. (“Sagufa”) v. Upper Assam Plywood Products Pvt. Ltd. & Ors., the Supreme Court has clarified the impact of the Order and stated that the order is to favour vigilant litigants only. It stated that, “It is needless to point out that the law of limitation finds its root in two latin maxims, one of which is ‘Vigilantibus Non Dormientibus Jura Subveniunt’ which means that the law will assist only those who are vigilant about their rights and not those who sleep over them.”
In this case, a petition for winding up of a company, filed by Sagufa, at the National Company Law Tribunal (“NCLT”) Guwahati Bench, was dismissed by the NCLT in October 2019. A certified copy of the order was received by Sagufa in December 2019. The prescribed period for filing an appeal against the decision of the NCLT at the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (“NCLAT”) is 45 days from the date of receiving the certified copy of the order. Further, the NCLAT can condone a delay upto 45 days after the prescribed period expires. Therefore, as per the Companies Act, 2013 and the Rules and Regulations made thereunder, the Appellant had the right to approach the NCLAT on or before March 18, 2020. However, the Appellant approached the NCLAT in July 2020 (almost 4 months after the expiration of the period of delay condonation expired), with an application for delay condonation citing the lockdown and the Supreme Court’s order of March 2020.
When NCLAT dismissed the appeal stating that it was time barred, the Appellant approached the Supreme Court. However, the Court, after reviewing various provisions of the Limitation Act, Companies Act, and General Clauses Act, stated that it is the “prescribed period” which is extended by its order. “Prescribed period” is the period of limitation only and does not include the period when delay can be condoned at the tribunal’s or court’s discretion. As per Section 4 of the Limitation Act:
“4. Expiry of prescribed period when court is closed— Where the prescribed period for any suit, appeal or application expires on a day when the court is closed, the suit, appeal or application may be instituted, preferred or made on the day when the court reopens.
The Supreme Court observed that upon perusal of various sections of the Limitation Act, it is clear that, “the expression “prescribed period” appearing in Section 4 cannot be construed to mean anything other than the period of limitation. Any period beyond the prescribed period, during which the Court or Tribunal has the discretion to allow a person to institute the proceedings, cannot be taken to be “prescribed period”.”
Therefore, the appellant was not allowed to claim the benefit of the order passed by this Court on 23.03.2020, for enlarging, even the period up to which delay can be condoned.