Kindersley and Hutchins, JJ.
1. These were suits, in the nature of appeals against distraints by their landlord, instituted by a number of raiyats under Section 18 of the Rent Recovery Act VIII of 1865 (Madras). The time limited for such summary suits is thirty days from the date of distraint. The distraints were made on the 10th of March, and on the 13th these raiyats presented a joint petition to the Head Assistant Collector, who accepted it, but, without registering it as a plaint, and apparently without considering what jurisdiction he had to interfere, endorsed the petition to the Tahsildar for inquiry and report. On behalf of the raiyats it has been suggested that this order must have been made under Section 67* which allows the Collector, at any stage of a summary suit, to direct a local inquiry. The other side has not shown how else the proceedings could be justified. It is true that the suit had not been registered, but the raiyats cannot be held responsible for any omission on behalf of the Court. The Tahsildar submitted a report on the 20th. Meanwhile, a duplicate petition, not presented in person, but sent by post to the Collector, had been transferred to the Head Assistant and similarly endorsed to the Tahsildar, and a second report was submitted on the 30th. The Head Assistant Collector left without considering either report, and after some delay the latter report was taken up by a Deputy Collector, who apparently had been put in charge of the Head Assistant's division. Finding that the suit had not been registered, and that each raiyat had a separate cause of action, and 'considering the petition to be a joint plaint,' the Deputy Collector ordered the plaintiffs to file separate plaints. He omitted to fix any time for so doing, but the plaints were filed on the eleventh day and accepted, and. it must be taken that the order was complied with within a reasonable time.
2. A slight difficulty arises from the fact that the copy of the petition which the Deputy Collector actually took into his hand for consideration was the duplicate (B) which had been sent by post to the Collector. It is, of course, impossible to consider this as a plaint at all. But it is evident that both the petitions were before the Deputy Collector for disposal, and the mere accident that he took up the arzi containing (B), the copy sent by post, instead of that which dealt with and returned the original petition (A), which had been properly presented in person, cannot be allowed to prejudice the plaintiffs. The District Judge has only considered the copy sent by post, but we are clearly of opinion that, if the original (A) can be regarded as a plaint, it was quite competent to the Deputy Collector to order or allow its amendment, and that his order must be taken in relation to that petition which was properly presented.
3. Now it is perfectly true that this (A) is in the form of a petition and does not profess to be a plaint, but it is not denied that it contains within itself everything which it was really necessary to allege. Mere errors of form can always be amended even in the regular Courts, and the whole policy of the Rent Recovery Act is to enable illiterate raiyats to go personally before unskilled tribunals for summary redress, and that substantial justice shall not be defeated by any 'want of form or irregularity in procedure' (Section 69). It is expressly provided that 'irregular or incomplete plaints may, at the Collector's discretion, be allowed to be amended' (Section 50). We therefore have no doubt that, so far as the petition was merely an 'irregular or incomplete plaint,' the Deputy Collector was right in allowing it to be amended, and what has taken its place must, of course, relate back to the date on which the original petition was presented, and be deemed to have been presented on that date.
4. It is perhaps somewhat doubtful whether the conversion of a joint plaint into a number of several plaints can be regarded as a mere amendment, or whether the several plaints must be deemed to have come into existence when they were separately drawn and presented. In deciding this point also it is but right to remember the policy of the Act and its express provision that even 'irregular (a very wide word) plaints may be amended, and that an order like the one in question, which certainly did substantial justice, shall not be defeated or set aside for want of form or irregularity of procedure. This point, therefore, need not necessarily be determined with reference to the stricter rules of the Civil Procedure Code, with which the revenue tribunals are not supposed to be acquainted. But even under the Code, it seems probable that an amendment like that in question might fairly be permitted. Section 53 shows when a plaint may be amended, and Section 54 when it must be rejected. The sixth Clause (f) in the former section runs thus: 'If it is wrongly framed by reason of non-joinder or mis-joinder of parties, or because the plaintiff has joined causes of action which ought not to be joined in the same suit.' It may, of course, be that the only way in which a plaint can be amended under this section is by striking out the parties misjoined, or requiring the plaintiff to elect which of the causes of action should be struck out. Even in that case it would be difficult to see how the Court could require twelve out of thirteen plaintiff's, who ought not to have sued together, to be struck out, with the possible result, as in this case, that the twelve would be barred while the one left in could continue his action. It is possible therefore that, under the Procedure Code, the only course would be to declare the plaint radically bad and to reject it absolutely. That question it is unnecessary to decide and we do not decide it. All that we decide is that under the larger discretion allowed by the Rent Recovery Act, the irregular joint plaint might fairly have been allowed to be split up into thirteen separate plaints; that this was an amendment within the power of the Revenue Court to allow; and that, even if irregular, the order allowing it having done substantial justice, ought not to have been set aside either by the Deputy Collector himself or by the District Judge on appeal.
5. The result is that the decisions of both. Courts must be reversed on this preliminary point and the cases stand for decision on the merits. Now the objection raised by all the appellants to the distraints is that the pattas, which they admit to have been tendered, were not such as they were bound to accept (Section 7).
6. It has been admitted by both sides (see the Deputy Collector's judgment) that this question depends on the right of the respondent fully to assess lands hitherto held as inams, and that this ' is a civil question not adjudicable by the Revenue Courts.' The Deputy Collector's view was that, being precluded from deciding whether the pattas were proper ones, he could only dismiss the tenants' appeals against the distraint, but it seems to us that he ought to have allowed the appeals and directed the distraints to be cancelled. The Section (18) which gives the right of appeal also shows that the distrainer would have been bound within fifteen days to apply to the same Deputy Collector for an order of sale. He is, therefore, bound to satisfy the Collector that he has the right to distrain, and he was bound in these cases to satisfy him that the pattas under cover of which he was proceeding were such as the tenants were bound to accept. It is admitted that he cannot do so.
7. The Deputy Collector's view would lead to this absurdity. If the respondent had taken the proper course and sued the appellants to compel their acceptance of the pattas, the objection which they now raise would have compelled the Collector to dismiss the suit and refer the respondent to the Civil Courts. A landholder can only distrain under cover of a patta which has not been settled by the Collector or accepted, by taking the risk of its being found to be such as the tenant was bound to accept. Yet, if the Deputy Collector is right, the tenant's mouth is closed and he is not to be allowed, in an appeal against a distraint, to raise an objection which would necessarily have prevailed against a suit to compel the acceptance of the patta. If that were good law, every landholder would take the course of distraining with a high hand when there is a bona fide civil dispute on the part of the cultivators as to their liability to the terms which he wishes to impose on them.
8. We allow the appeals, and, reversing the decrees of the lower Courts, we decree that the distraints be cancelled and that the respondent do pay the costs throughout.
* Local enquiry.
[Section 67: The Collector may, at any stage of a case, cause a local enquiry and report respecting the matter in dispute to be made by any officer subordinate to him. Such report, with the evidence and documents upon which it is founded, shall form a part of the record of the suit, and shall be considered by the Collector in passing his judgment.]