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Mangal Chand Vs. Forest Department, Through Divisional Forest Officer - Court Judgment

LegalCrystal Citation
SubjectLabour and Industrial
CourtHimachal Pradesh High Court
Decided On
Judge
Reported inII(1985)ACC130,(1985)ILLJ369HP
AppellantMangal Chand
RespondentForest Department, Through Divisional Forest Officer
Cases ReferredIn Union of India v. Ram Charon
Excerpt:
- .....was time barred.2. the facts briefly stated are that the appellant preferred the claim before the learned commissioner against the state government (forest department) on april 4, 1981 alleging that his son met with death as a result of the injury caused to him by an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment on 11th september, 1974. the divisional forest officer, nichar, district kinnaur, who was served with the notice of the claim, filed a written statement on 20th october, 1982, inter alia, denying the liability and raising the plea of limitation. it appears that the case proceeded ex parte against the respondent and the evidence of the appellant and his witnesses was recorded. the learned commissioner held that the claim was not preferred within the time limited by.....
Judgment:

P.D. Desai, C.J.

1. This appeal under Section 30 of the Workmen's Compensation Act, 1923 (hereinafter referred to as 'the Act') is preferred by the original claimant (father of the deceased workman) against the order passed by the Commissioner for Workmen's Compensation, Rampur (hereinafter referred to as 'the Commissioner') disallowing the claim to compensation on the ground that the same was time barred.

2. The facts briefly stated are that the appellant preferred the claim before the learned Commissioner against the State Government (Forest Department) on April 4, 1981 alleging that his son met with death as a result of the injury caused to him by an accident arising out of and in the course of his employment on 11th September, 1974. The Divisional Forest Officer, Nichar, District Kinnaur, who was served with the notice of the claim, filed a written statement on 20th October, 1982, inter alia, denying the liability and raising the plea of limitation. It appears that the case proceeded ex parte against the respondent and the evidence of the appellant and his witnesses was recorded. The learned Commissioner held that the claim was not preferred within the time limited by law and that sufficient cause was not shown for preferring the claim beyond the prescribed period. Be it noted that the learned Commissioner was inclined to condone the delay till the middle of April, 1980 on the ground that a communication dated 14th April, 1980 addressed by the Chief Conservator of Forests to the appellant finally disclaiming liability and advising that a claim, if any, might be preferred against the concerned contractor was received by the appellant at or about the said lime. The learned Commissioner was, however, of the view that the claim was preferred after the expiry of a period of about one year even after the receipt of the said communication and that the said delay having not been explained, sufficient cause to condone the delay was not made out. Under the circumstances, without entering into the merits of the dispute between the parties, the claim was disallowed as time barred. Hence the present appeal.

3. Before dealing with the question whether the decision of the learned Commissioner is in accordance with law, it is worthwhile to refer to the observations of the Supreme Court in Trustees, Bombay Port v. Premier Automobiles : [1974]3SCR397 , in regard to the plea of limitation raised by public authorities. That was a case of a petty claim of Rs. 1,177.42 paise made by a commercial man against the Bombay Port Trust (Bailees) for a missing article or its value by way of damages and the suit was ultimately found to have been instituted a little over 10 days beyond the period of limitation. The Supreme Court noted that the defendant had dissuaded the plaintiff in that case from instituting the suit by its promises of search for the lost article but had finally pleaded helplessness. When the plaintiff filed the suit, however, the plea of limitation was raised and it was stoutly persisted upto the highest court. The Supreme Court said, in the context of these facts:

We are of the view, in reiteration of earlier expression on the same lines, that public bodies should resist the temptation to take technical pleas or defeat honest claims by legally permissible but marginally unjust contentions, including narrow limitation ...it is doubtful morality to non-suit solely on grounds of limitation, a plaintiff who is taken in by seemingly responsible representation only to find himself fooled by his credibility ...public institutions convict themselves of untrustworthiness out of their own mouth by resorting to such defences.

These observations are required to be borne in mind by every public authority, more particularly by the State. The injunction contained in the first part of these observations, which were made in a purely commercial cause, applies with still greater force in a case like the present. The Act has been enacted by the Parliament to provide for the payment of compensation by certain classes of employers including the State to their workmen or their dependants for injury or death, as the case may be, by accident caused under certain circumstances. It is surprising that when it comes to the implementation of such a beneficent law, the State and/or its limbs should try to defeat a claim not on merits but on technical pleas such as limitation. It is legitimate to hope that bearing in mind the injunction of the Supreme Court in the above mentioned case, public authorities would desist from raising such pleas in future in appropriate cases like the present irrespective of the margin of delay. But that is not all. The thrust of the sharp criticism contained in the second part of those observations relating to the conduct of public authorities, who lure an unwary litigant into a particular belief and then turn round and take up such defences as limitation, must as well be borne in mind by public authorities including the State in all such cases. The circumstances, to be presently pointed out, would show that the State convicts itself of untrustworthiness out of its own mouth by resorting to such defences in a case like the present.

4. As earlier pointed out, the learned Commissioner has referred to a communication dated 14th April, 1980 received by the appellant from the Chief Conservator of Forests finally disclaiming liability and advising initiation of action for compensation against the contractor. The appellant was rightly held to be justified in not rushing to prefer the claim upto the date of the receipt of this communication under the genuine hope and belief that the authorities would voluntary make the payment, The learned Commissioner has, however, failed to notice another communication dated 16th April, 1980 which was addressed by the Private Secretary to the Forest Minister to the appellant. The said communication was in reply to an undated application made by the appellant to the Minister claiming compensation for the death of his son. In the course of the said communication, the Private Secretary to the Forest Minister assured the appellant that an inquiry would be made in regard to his claim and that he would be duly informed as soon as possible. The letter contained an endorsement at the foot which shows that a copy thereof alongwith the original letter of the appellant was forwarded to the Chief Conservator of Forests for immediate action with a direction to make a thorough inquiry and to send a report. No evidence has been brought on the record of the case to establish that any further communication was sent to the appellant by the Private Secretary to the Forest Minister. Under such circumstances, the appellant justly desisted from preferring the claim relying upon the assurances held out to him at the highest level and blame could hardly be laid at his doors for waiting till 4th April, 1981. The observations made by the Supreme Court in Trustees, Bombay Part case, (supra), thus become applicable with greater vigour in a case like the present. The plea of limitation could not justifiably have been raised and it ought not to have been raised in the instant case against the aforesaid background.

5. Even the learned Commissioner has not adopted the correct legal approach in considering the question of condonation of delay. Under Section 10, Sub-section (1) of the Act, a claim for compensation is required to be preferred within two years of the occurrence of the accident or, in case of death, within two years from the date of death. The fifth proviso to Sub-section (1) enacts that the Commissioner may entertain and decide any claim to compensation, notwithstanding that it has not been preferred in due time as provided in the said Sub-section, if he is satisfied that the failure to prefer the claim was due to sufficient cause. The question is whether, in the present case, against the aforesaid factual back-ground, the learned Commissioner, in the exercise of his discretion, acted judicially and bearing in mind all the relevant factors or whether he acted unreasonably and without regard to all the relevant factors. The statutory perspective of the power of the Court to condone delay in institution of proceedings on sufficient cause being shown and the principles regulating the exercise of such power are well settled. In Lonad Gram Punchayat v. Ramgiri : (1967)IILLJ870SC , in the context of a similar provision contained in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, the Supreme Court observed as follows:

This discretion like other judicial discretion must be exercised with vigilance and circumspection according to justice, common sense and sound judgment. The discretion is. to know through law what is just, see Keighley's case 77 ER 1136.

It was further observed that the words 'sufficient cause' which occurred in Section 5 of the Limitation Act had received liberal construction and that similar interpretation should be placed upon those words in cognate statutory provisions. In this connection the following passage from the decision of the Madras High Court in Krishna v. Chathappan I.L.R. Madras 269, (which had earlier received approval in Dinabandhu Saint v. Jadumoni Mangaraj A.I.R. 1954 S.C. 411 and Ramlal v. Rewa Coalfields Ltd. : [1962]2SCR762 was cited with affirmance:

We think that Section 5 gives the Courts a discretion which in respect of jurisdiction is to be exercised in the way in which judicial power and discretion ought to be exercised upon principles which are well understood; the words 'sufficient cause' receiving a liberal construction so as to advance substantial justice when no negligence nor inaction nor want of bona fides is imputable to the appellant.

6. In Union of India v. Ram Charon : [1964]3SCR467 , certain pertinent observations are made with regard to the nature of proof required for establishing the suggested 'sufficient cause' in a proceeding under Order 22, Rule 9 of the Code of Civil Procedure of setting aside abatement and those observations would apply with equal force to any other proceeding where such cause is to be established. It was there observed:

The provisions of the Code are with a view to advance the cause of justice the Court, in considering whether the appellant has established sufficient cause for his not continuing the suit in time or for not applying for the setting aside of the abatement within time, need not be overstrict in expecting such proof of the suggested cause as it would expect for holding certain fact established, both because the question does not relate to the merits of the dispute between the parties and because if the abatement is set aside, the merits of the dispute can be determined, while, if the abatement is not set aside, the appellant is deprived of his proving his claim on account of his culpable negligence or lack of vigilance.

It is pertinent to point out in this connection that Courts, tribunals and quasi-judicial authorities must always bear in mind that whereas refusal to condone delay might result in injustice by a meritorious case being thrown out without trial, condonation of delay would at the highest result in decision of the case on merits. Furthermore, no litigant ordinarily stands to benefit by instituting a proceeding beyond time and there is no presumption that the delay has been occasioned deliberately or on account of culpable negligence or that there was want of bona fides. The presumption, if any, would be just the other way round. Pedantic and unpragmatic approach should not be made to the matter and the Court need not be overstrict in expecting proof of the suggested sufficient cause. It is of paramount importance that there should be awareness that since this discretion has to be exercised with circumspection according to justice, common sense and sound judgment and for advancing substantial justice, all factors including the status and background of the parties, the previous history, if any, of the litigation and the conduct of the parties therein upto date, the period of and circumstances leading to the delay and the probity of the suggested cause for delay, the quality of legal assistance, guidance and advice received by the defaulting litigant and, in a State like ours, the difficult terrain and inclement weather rendering access to the copying agency, counsel and Court extremely difficult, if not impossible, in certain seasons and in certain regions, are all matters which, amongst others, must enter into consideration and the final decision must be arrived at in the overall light of all the relevant circumstances.

7. In the present case, as pointed out earlier, the delay had occurred because the appellant, acting on the assurances held out to him by the State as well as by its subordinate limbs, bona fide waited for an interval of time which mast, on the facts and in the circumstances of the case, be regarded as reasonable and preferred the claim even before the last of such assurances had proved abortive. In my opinion, under such circumstances, to hold that there was no sufficient cause, would tantamount to approaching the case from an angle or perspective which is wholly contrary to settled legal principles.

8. For the foregoing reasons, in my opinion, the learned Commissioner was in error in disallowing the Claim on the ground that no sufficient cause was made out for the condonation of delay in the institution of the claim. The appeal, therefore, succeeds and it is allowed The delay in the preferment of the claim is condoned. The learned Commissioner is directed to restore the claim application to his file and to proceed to deal with and decide the same in accordance with law with the utmost expedition. The learned Commissioner will decide the application within a period not exceeding eight weeks from the date of the receipt of the writ in view of the fact that the claim pertains to the death of a workman who died in 1974. The appellant will be entitled to his costs quantified at Rs. 350/- which shall be paid to him by the respondent before the hearing of the claim application starts before the learned Commissioner.


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