1. This Civil Miscellaneous Appeal arises out of certain execution proceedings. It raises a point of construction of Section 15(1) of Tamil Nadu Act XXXVIII of 1972. This enactment was avowedly passed to provide for the relief of certain indebted persons in the State. Briefly stated, the Act confers a right on certain debtors, and in certain conditions, to apply to the Court for scaling down their debts under Section 15. There is a time-limit provide for under this section. The time-limit is six months from the date of publication of the Act. It may be observed that the Act was published in the Gazette on 15th December, 1972. Section 15 contains two sub-sections. Sub-section (1) deals with a case where a decree has been passed before the publication of the Act in the Official Gazette. Sub-section (2), on the other hand, deals with a case where in a respect of a debt payable on the date of the publication of the Act in the Official Gazette, a decree has been passed subsequent to the date of the said publication.
2. The appellants before me, who are the judgment-debtors, filed an application under Section 15(1) of the Act and asked for relief. The decree against them was passed on 15th February, 1965, prior to the publication of the Act in the Official Gazette.
3. The learned Subordinate Judge, however, dismissed the judgment-debtor's application as time-barred. He did so because the application was filed only on 25th April, 1974, which was beyond six months from the date of publication of the Act. Incidentally, the judgment-debtors also filed a separate application for excusing the delay in moving the Court under Section 15(1) of the Act, but this application was also dismissed by the learned Subordinate Judge.
4. In this appeal against the dismissal of the judgment-debtors' application under Section 15(1) of the Act as time-barred, it is contended that Tamil Nadu Act XXXVIII of 1972 does not impose any time-limit whatever for an application by a judgment-debtor for scaling down the decree. Learned counsel for the judgment-debtors cited in support of his submission, the judgment of a learned single Judge of this Court, N. S. Ramaswami, J., reported as Ramakrishnan v. Kandaswami Thevar 1974 TLNJ 378. Learned counsel said that this decision of Ramaswami, J., was followed by another learned single Judge of this Court, Gokulakrishnan, J., in Kuppachi Ammal v. Lakshmi Ammal 1975 TLNJ 462.
5. It may be stated, at once, that Gokulakrishnan, J. was not directly concerned with an application under Section 15(1) of the Act, but was dealing with an order rejecting an application for excusing the delay in moving the Court under Section 15(1) of the Act. The earlier judgment of Ramaswami J., however, is a direct decision on the point, for in that case too, an application by a judgment-debtor was filed under Section 15(1) of the Act, but beyond six months from the date of publication of the Act. Actually, in that case, the application for relief was filed on 8th October, 1973. Ramaswami, J. held that while Section 15(1) imposed a time-limit for filing applications for scaling down decree debts, the time-limit applied only in the case of an application filed by a decree-holder for relief. He held that the requirement as to limitation does not apply in the case of an application filed by a judgment-debtor.
6. To understand the reasoning of the learned Judge, it is necessary to quote the section verbatim, punctuation and all.
'Where before the publication of this Act, a Court has passed a decree for the repayment of a debt, it shall, on the application of any judgment-debtor who is a debtor within the meaning of this Act, or in respect of a Hindu joint family debt, on the application of any member of the family whether or not he is the judgment-debtor or on the application of the decree-holder within six months from the date of publication of this Act, apply the provisions of this Act to such decree and shall, notwithstanding anything contained in the Civil P.C. 1908 (Central Act V of 1908), amend the decree accordingly or enter satisfaction, as the case may be'.
7. As earlier indicated by me, this sub-section refers to two kinds of applications: (i) application by the judgment-debtor, and (ii) application by the decree-holder. According to Ramaswami, J. it is only to an application by the decree-holder that the limitation of six months would apply. The reason adduced by the learned Judge was that there is no comma immediately after the words 'on the application of the decree-holder'. According to the learned Judge, the absence of a comma at the appropriate place signified that the words of limitation, 'within six months from the date of publication of this Act' have to be read as applicable only to the immediately preceding words, 'on the application of the decree-holder', and they cannot be held to apply to 'the application of any judgment-debtor'.
8. With great respect, I do not agree with the construction placed by the earned Judge on Section 15(1) of the Act. The construction is based on the non-existence of a punctuation mark as indicative of the legislative intention. This, in my submission, is an erroneous approach. It is an accepted principle of statutory construction that a Court should not attach importance either to punctuation marks or to their absence while seeking to discover the legislative intention. In Maxwell's Interpretation of Statutes (Twelfth Edition) P. 14, one aspect of this principle is stated thus:
'Where it is necessary to give a provision a particular construction which is at variance with the way in which the section is punctuated, it may be read as though there were in fact punctuation where none appears on the face of the Act.'
9. In Regina v. Governor of Brixton Prison LR (1962) 1 QB 211, Section 10 of the Fugitive Offenders Act, 1881, came up for construction before the Queen's Bench Division. That section conferred on a superior Court power to discharge a fugitive where 'by reason of the trivial nature of the case, or by reason of the application for the return of a fugitive not being made in good faith in the interests of justice or otherwise', it would be unjust or oppressive or too severe a punishment to return him, such Court may discharge the fugitive. It was urged that the Court had a discretion to discharge the fugitive only where the case is of a trivial nature or where it is made in bad faith, and not in other cases. It was argued that, as the section read, there was no comma after the words 'in the interests of justice', and the following words 'or otherwise' must be construed only as qualifying the immediately preceding words 'in the interests of justice'. The learned Judges, however, held that the Court's discretion to discharge a fugitive could be exercised in any case in which the return of the man would be unjust, or oppressive, or too severe, and it was not confined to cases in which the application appeared not to have been made in good faith. The Court rejected the contention based on the absence of the punctuation mark in between the words ' in the interests of justice' and 'or otherwise'. A perusal of the judgment of Lord Parker, C. J. in this case, shows that there was no ambiguity in the section.
10. The same is the case with the wording of Section 15(1) of Tamil Nadu Act XXXVIII of 1972. It seems to me that no significance should be attached to the absence of a comma after the words, 'or on the application of the decree-holder'. To construe Acts according to punctuation marks or according to the absence of punctuation marks, would be to construe legislative enactment, not according to the intention of the Legislature, but according to the intention of the statutory draftsman. In conceive that what the Legislature passes in its reading of the Bills are sections and other provisions; it does not pass punctuation marks, as part of its reading, excepting in cases where, as might happen on occasion, while introducing amending provisions, punctuation marks are specifically adverted to in the amendments themselves.
11. In my view, Section 15(1) of the Act is clear and unambiguous. The provision of a time-limit of six months from the date of publication of the Act, as a requirement for moving the Court for a scaling down of the decree, applies to an application moved by the judgment-debtor quite as much as to an application filed by the decree-holder. I cannot imagine there could be any rational basis for imposing a time-limit on the one, but not on the other. I cannot, therefore, attribute to the legislature any intention to discriminate between the judgment-debtors and the decree-holder, as that discrimination cannot have any rational relation to the object of the Act. I am, therefore, of the view that under the section, an application by the judgment-debtor should also have to be filed within six months of the publication of the Act in the Gazette. Since the application in this case was not filed within that time-limit, I hold it was rightly dismissed as time-barred by the learned Subordinate Judge.
12. Learned counsel for the appellants sought to make a point out of the fact that his clients came to know of the decree passed against them only on 1st April, 1974. I do not think this fact has any relevance to a consideration of the question arising under Section 15(1) of the Act. The period of limitation prescribed therein has to be computed, not from the date of the decree, but from the date of the publication of the Act. The question of knowledge or non-knowledge of the decree does not enter the discussion at all.
In the result, the appeal, is dismissed, but, in the circumstances, there will be no order as to costs.
13. Appeal dismissed.