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Officer Responsible For Negligence Would Be Liable To Suffer And Not Public Interest Through State; Supreme Court Considers High Court’s Observation Justified 

Sheo Raj Singh (Deceased) Through Lrs. & Ors. V/S Union Of India & Anr. [Civil Appeal No. 5867 Of 2015]

The division bench of Justice Bela M. Trivedi and Justice Dipankar Datta said that there cannot be any quarrel that this Court has stepped in to ensure that substantive rights of private parties and the State are not defeated at the threshold simply due to technical considerations of delay. 

The bench reiterated that condonation of delay being a discretionary power available to courts, exercise of discretion must necessarily depend upon the sufficiency of the cause shown and the degree of acceptability of the explanation, the length of delay being immaterial. 

The appeal, at the instance of certain affected landowners, challenged the order dated 21 st December 2011 passed by a Single Judge of the High Court of Delhi. By the order under challenge, the High Court allowed an application filed by the Union of India under section 5 of the Limitation Act, 1963 and thereby condoned the delay of around 479 days in presentation of an appeal from the decision of the Reference Court under section 18 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.

Chinmoy Pradip Sharma, Senior Advocate, for the appellant, contended that the High Court plainly erred in condoning the delay without sufficient cause being shown therefore. 

He pointed out that the reasons cited were not reasonable by any measure, and that the same were habitual unacceptable explanations meted out in such land acquisition matters to seek condonation of delay. 

Sanjiv Sen, Senior Counsel, for the respondent urged the Court not to disturb the findings in the impugned order since the High Court had, in judicious exercise of discretion, condoned the delay after satisfying itself as to the sufficiency of the reasons for the delay in presentation of the appeal.

The court observed the High Court while condoning the delay considered that a distinction should be drawn between inordinate unexplained delay and explained delay, where in the present case, the first respondent had sufficiently explained the delay on account of negligence on part of the government functionaries and the government counsel on record before the Reference Court. The officer responsible for the negligence would be liable to suffer and not public interest through the State. The High Court felt inclined to take a pragmatic view since the negligence therein did not border on callousness.

The court did not consider discretion to have been exercised by the High Court in an arbitrary manner. The order under challenge had to be a clearly wrong order so as to be liable for interference, which it is not.

“The hidden forces that are at work in preventing an appeal by the State being presented within the prescribed period of limitation so as not to allow a higher court to pronounce upon the legality and validity of an order of a lower court and thereby secure unholy gains, can hardly be ignored. Impediments in the working of the grand scheme of governmental functions have to be removed by taking a pragmatic view on balancing the competing interests”, the court said. 

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