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Birla Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mills Ltd. Vs. Union of India and ors. - Court Judgment

LegalCrystal Citation
CourtDelhi High Court
Decided On
Case NumberCivil Revision Appeal No. 504 of 1974
Reported in6(1979)DLT16
ActsProvincial Small Causes Courts Act - Sections 25
AppellantBirla Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mills Ltd.
RespondentUnion of India and ors.
Advocates: B.R. Sabharwal and; Ravinder Sethi, Advs
Cases ReferredMotital Padampat Sugar Mills v. State of U.P. and
.....from department - telephone department sought its objectives by threat of disconnection unless bills paid with a promise to supply duplicate copies of bills after making of payment - duplicate bills not supplied to petitioner - suit for refund of amount as illegally coerced dismissed by trial court - revision against such order - according to petitioner bills never received by him before receiving disconnection notices - department failed to supply detailed and duplicate copies of bills - government bound to carry out promise made by it to supply duplicate bills even though promise not recorded in form of a formal contract as required by constitutional provisions - petitioner entitled to refund. - - on the second he decided against the petitioner and held that the plaintiff had..........the office copies and supply them but this was not done. the written statement itself shows that copies of bills of 1961 and 1963 were supplied and so the rule regarding destruction of records is not helpful to the respondent. (10) the learned judge has emphasised that, even if the copies had been supplied the plaintiff had no records from which he could have been verified the conectness of the bills. it is true that, in his evidence, public witness -2 stated that no records had been maintained by the petitioner in this respect. however, the learned judge overlooked that the copies of the bills, if supplied, would have shown the nature of the bill(whether-it was a trunk call or a phonogram), the date of the call or telegram and the place to which the call was made. these could have.....

S. Ranganathan, J.

(1) This revision if the outcome of a tussle in principle between a big Company and the Union of India, the monetary stake involved being the paltry sum of Rs. 920. 36.

(2) There are 5 telephones installed in the premises of the petitioner company at Subzi Mandi, Delhi. In July 1965, September 1965 and again in May 66, the Account Officer, Telephone Revenues, Delhi Telephone District, New Delhi sent to the company notices of disconnection of the telephones bearing numbers mentioned in the respective notices. The notices stated that several bills in respect of trunk calls booked on the above telephones remained unpaid and that if the said bills (the number, date and amount of cash of which was given) were not paid within seven days of the date of issue of the notices, the telephone would be disconnected. The amount thus claimed to represent unpaid outstanding arrears was Rs. 920.36.

(3) According to the petitioner, the bills (alleged to be unpaid) had never been sent to the plaintiff prior the receipt of the disconnection notices. But in view of the threat of disconnection, the petitioner paid the amount as demanded in Dec. '65 and May '66 respectively and then requested the concerned officer that the alleged bills or duplicate copies thereof with full particulars may be given to it. inspire of several letters and reminders there was no compliance; on the other hand, on 14-6-1968 the Accounts Officer expressed his inability to supply the detailed copies of the alleged bills. The petitioner company thereforee, after issue of due notices u/s 80 of the Civil Procedure Code , filed a suit against the Union of India for a refund of the sum of Rs. 920.36 which had been 'illegally coerced' from it under the threat of disconnection.

(4) The defendant's case was that all the bills had been sent to the plaintiff at their proper address in accordance with paragraph 44.2 of the Indian Telephone R.ules every month. No complaints about the non-recall of the bills had been received from the petitioner and the bills had remained unpaid. In regard to the supply of duplicates, it was stated, that except for six bills aggregating to Rs. 98.59, particulars of the bills were not available as the original records had already been destroyed when the enquiry of the plaintiff was being dealt with. It was urged that the suit was liable to be dismissed as misconceived and vexatious.

(5) The plaintiff filed documentary evidence comprising the entire correspondence between the parties in the matter and also examined, in addition to a formal witness, its accountant Hariram and its attorney, S.D.Dadu. The defendant took time for evidence but eventually led no evidence at all.

(6) The Small Causes Judge, having dismissed the suit on 22-5-1973, the petitioner has preferred this revision petition under S. 25 of the Provincial Small Causes Courts Act.

(7) The learned Judge formulated two points for decision,one on the question of limitation and the other as to whether the plaintiff was entitled to refund of the amount) as alleged. He answered the .first point in favor of the petitioner and it is no longer in issue. On the second he decided against the petitioner and held that the plaintiff had failed to establish his case,' for the following reasons:-

(1) Under Rule 442 referred to earlier, a bill could be served by 'delivery to the subscriber or by sending it by post to the address of the subscriber, or by leaving it at the premises in or upon which the apparatus is installed.' Since the petitioner maintained no receipt register, its bare assertion that the bills had not been received was not acceptable. (2) According to Appendix Iii of Post and Telegraphs Financial Hand Book, records of trunk calls were preserved only for six months after the issue of the bills and since this period had expired no duplicates could be supplied. (3) Even if the duplicate bills had been supplied, it would have served no purpose because, even according to the evidence of the plaintiff, it maintained no records against which the details of the calls could be verified.

(8) In my opinion the learned trial Judge erred in dismissing the suit and he has also proceeded on a misconception of the true nature of the plaintiff's claim, I shall first assume that this is a case where the plaintiff had come to Court at an earlier stage in response to a simple demand to pay certain bills said to be outstanding and had sought to restrain the respondent from recovering the amounts on the ground that the originals had not been received and duplicates had not been supplied though asked for. In that event, no doubt, the plaintiff would first have to prove that the bills had not been received by him. This is a negative and may not be always capable of proof. In the case of most individuals placed in these circumstances, it can only be a bare assertion which the Court will have to believe or disbelieve. In the case of companies and certain other public or official bodies, even the negative can perhaps be proved by producing the dak receipt register for a fair length of time after the date of the alleged issue of the notices and showing that the bills are not included among the dak receive indeed, if such a plaintiff maintains a receipt register and does not produce it, and adverse inference could be drawn against him. But, in the present case, Public Witness -3 states that no register was maintained about the receipt of the bills and this evidence has been accepted by the learned Judge. Hence the fact that the plaintiff is not able to say more than that it has not received the bills does not disprove it case'. On the other hand, in the context of the fact that it is a large company and has even on the very date in ' Oct. '65 paid a huge amount indicates that it may not be just a false statement to avoid payment. The bills pertain to different periods and some are for very petty amounts and it is difficult to say that the petitioner is putting up a false plea regardingnon-receipt of the bills. The bills in the case are two to four years old and it is not stated whether any earlier demanded had been made or not. All the plaintiff, in such circumstances, can say is that he does not appear to have received the orginal bills. In fact, having regard to Rule 442 referred to relied upon, the emphasis is not so much on whether the plaintiff had received the bills as on whether the bills had been served, sent or delivered in the manner contemplated in the rule. On this question, clealry the onus is on the respondent as the facts whether the the bills were sent or served and in what manner would be exclusively within the knowledge of the respondent and available in its records. If it was sent by personal delivery there usually is a delivery book and if it was sent-by ordinary post, it will be available in the dispatch register. The respondent however choses to lead no evidence. There is also no plea that no records are maintained in respect of the issue/delivery of the bills or that though maintained, they had been destroyed long age Even otherwise there ^ obviously must have been some register of subscribers or record based on which the notices of disconnection had been issued. But the respondent is completely silent about all this in the written statetement and also furnishes no evidence. In this state of affairs, I am afraid I cannot agree that merely because of the existence of Rule 442 it should be presumed that the' bills must have been sent in the normal course and that the plaintiff should betaken to be wrong in saying that the bills had not been received by it. To me it is inconceivable why acompany which must be receiving and regularly paying a large number of bills for regular calls) trunk calls and phonograms should make a claim of this nature had it not been genuine in saying that the bills had not been received. If the bills had been received soms action must have been taken on them at least a decision that they need not be paid and no suggestion has .been made in the cross-examination that for some ulterior purpose the bills had been left un-paid. No doubt there is a possibility that the bills had been received but misplaced or lost but such a possibility in respect of such a large number of'bills is highly remote and that, in the case of company. All these aspects should have been kept in mind by the Court in assessing evidence in this regard of the plaintiff and the conclusion that the bills had been sent and the plaintiff was not stating the truth is to my mind impossible in the state of the evidence in the case.

(9) As to the second point made by the learned Judge, apart from a reference to departmental rules as to destruction of records, there is nothing on record to show that the relative original bills had been destroyed after the six- months period mentioned in the rule. On the other hand, the evidence on record contradicts any such assumption. The notices of disconnection specifically mention: 'If so delivered duplicate copy/copies of the original bills would be supplied to you subseqently on application.' On the correspondence placed on record by the petitioner would show that inresponse to repeated requests from the company, the respondent never gave the simple answer that the records had been long ago destroyed. On the other hand the respondent only stated that the records were not readily traceable. A few copies were supplied and as to the rest, the respondent promised to trace the office copies and supply them but this was not done. The written statement itself shows that copies of bills of 1961 and 1963 were supplied and so the rule regarding destruction of records is not helpful to the respondent.

(10) The learned Judge has emphasised that, even if the copies had been supplied the plaintiff had no records from which he could have been verified the conectness of the bills. It is true that, in his evidence, Public Witness -2 stated that no records had been maintained by the petitioner in this respect. However, the learned Judge overlooked that the copies of the bills, if supplied, would have shown the nature of the bill(whether-it was a trunk call or a phonogram), the date of the call or telegram and the place to which the call was made. These could have furnished the petitioner with sufficient infromation to satisfy himself as to the correctness of the bill. That apart, once the copies of the .bills were supplid it would have been for the petitioner to show that any or some of the items billed for did not pertain to it. But it is extremely illogical to say that the copies of the bills need not be given because, even if they had been they would not have helped the petitioner.

(11) In short, the petitioner's liability to make the payments arises when a bill in regard there to is sent to him. It may have to be examined when the occasion arises whether a rule- can validly provide that the mere dispatch of the bill imposing an obligation to pay without proof of service, but, taking it that it can, it must be at least shown that the bill was dispatched as per the rules and this the respondent has failed to do. Hence, if the plaintiff had come at the earlier stage referred to it might well have been entitled to an injunction restraining the respondent from seeking to recover the amounts without furnishing the details of the bills.

(12) But, in the present case, there is one further important aspect which entitles the petitioner to succeed and which the learned trial Judge completely missed. The suit has been filed by the plaintiff for refund of money's paid under coercive threat. Para 2 of the disconnection notices (anextract from one of them is quoted below) reads as follows :

'I have, thereforee, to request you kindly to let us have particulars of the payment made by you if the bill(s) has/have already been paid or otherwise ensure that it is/these are paid within 7 days from the date of issue of this notice after which the department will be regretfully forced to deny telephone service to you. If the original bill(s) is/are not available with you, the payment may be made in the post office at the station of your exchange on presentation of this notice. If so desired, duplicate copy/copies of the original bills will be supplied to you subsequently on application.'

In other words, the Telephones Department sought to achieve its objective by the threat of disconnection unless the bills were paid within seven dayscoupled with a promise to supply duplicate copies, if applied for subsequently. In my opinion what has often been described as the doctrine of promissory estoppel should come to the rescue of the plaintiff in this case. In Union of India v. Anglo-Afghan Agencies, A.I.R. 1968 S.C. 718, Shah-J. (as he then was) observed referring to Municipal Corporation of Bombay v. Secretary of State ILR (1904) 29 Bom. 580 (vide p. 72) This case, is in our judgment, a clear authority that even though the case does not fall within the terms of S.I 15 of the Evidence Act, it is still open to a party who has acted on a representation made by the Government to claim that the Government shall be bound to carry out the promise made by it, even though the promise is not record in the form of a formal contract as required by the Constitution.' Again, at p. 728, the learned Judge observed :

'UNDER our jurisprudence the Government is not exempt from liability to carry out the representation made by it as to its future conduct and it cannot on some underfined and undisclosed ground of necessity or expedience fail to carry out the promise solemnly made by it, nor claim to be judge of its own obligation to the citizen on an ex-parte appraisement of the circumstances in which the obligation has risen.'

(13) Very recently the law on the subject has been considered in detail by S. C. 'with a view to defining its contours and demarcating its parameters' in its recent judgment in Motital Padampat Sugar Mills v. State of U.P. and others (civil Appers No. 1597 of 1972 decide on 12-12-1978). The judgment in the case has traced the doctrine and its development in the United Kingdom, U.S.A. and critically examined it in all its aspects. The principle, in the words of Bhagwati-J can be stated thus :

'THE true principle of promissory estoppel, thereforee, seems to be that where one party has by his words or conduct made to the other a clear and unequivocal promise which is intended to create legal relations or affect a legal relationship to arise in the future, knowing or intending that it would be acted upon by the other party to whom the promise is made and it is in fact so acted upon by the other party, the promise would be binding on the party making it and he would not be entitled to go back upon it, if it would be inequitable to allow him to do so having regard to the dealings which have taken place between the parties, and this would be so irrespective of whether there is any preexisting relationship between the parties or not'

The doctrine, it was made clear, is not ''inhibited by the same limitation as estoppel in the strict sense of the term.' It is an equitable principle evolved by the Court for doing justice and there is no reason why it should be given only a limited application by way of defense.' It has also been pointed out that 'the trend has been strong in favor of the applicat on of the doctrine of promissory estoppel against the Government and public bodies where interests of justice, morality and common fair ness clearly dictate that course.' In India also decided cases have adopted the doctrine in its follness and applied it against the Government, negativing the defense based on executive necessity. It is unnecessary to refer at greater length to the discussion contained in the judgment for the purposes of this case. Suffice it to say that, the doctrine is applicable in the facts and circumstances of the present case and so doing, it is clear that the respondents, having obtained payment of the bills by giving an assurnce that duplicate copies would be supplied afterwards if the bills are paid first cannot now be heard to contend that it was not possible to furnish the duplicates or that, even if they were supplied, the plaintiff would be none the wiser.

(14) For the above reasons, lam of opinion that the trial Court erred in dismissing the suit. It is, however, unnecessary to remit the case to the trial Court for fresh disposal. In view of what I have said above, it is clear that the petitioner is entitled to a refund of the amounts paid, encept to the extent of Rs. 98.59 referred to in para 5 of the written statement. In respect of these bills, duplicates have been supplied to the petitioner and he can have no grievance as it is not the case of the petitioner that these bills were wrong in any particular and that the petitioner is not liable to pay the same. I would thereforee direct that there should be a decree in favor of the petitioner for Rs. 821.77 and costs. The revision is allowed to this extent and the order of the learned Judge of Small Causes will stand revised accordingly.

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