Constitutional Law: Doctrine of Laches

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

When one comes across the term “laches”, he may at the first instinct begin to think of it as a metal bar which you lift in order to open the door; but in legal scenario “laches” means “too bad” as in “that opportunity is now lost”. The doctrine of laches is often used in civil and tortuous cases where the defendants raise the said doctrine as an affirmative defence in equity to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the petitioner at the threshold alleging that the petitioner approached the court beyond reasonable time period.

The doctrine is based on the Latin maxim “Vigilantibus Et Non Dormientibus Jura Subveniunt” which states that equity aids the vigilant and not those who slumber on their rights. Thus, the outcome is that the legal right or claim proposed by the petitioner will not be allowed or enforced if there is a long delay in asserting the right or claim.

For Example: Justin purchased a plot next door to Harry’s, he hires a contractor to begin the construction of the house and the adjacent swimming pool which is being built. Harry has full knowledge that the swimming pool is 5 yards on his property line, but stays quite. 6 years later he  files a suit against Justin for trespass, Justin then issues doctrine of laches claiming Harry had the knowledge of the trespass yet did not inform at the concerned time, if he would have, the construction could have stopped and proceeded accordingly. Considering the fact that now the swimming pool is already built and it is not reasonably possible to buy/sell 6 yards of property, the judge takes into account the doctrine of laches believing that the time period to approach the court by Harry is unreasonable.

Difference between ‘Laches’ and ‘Statute of Limitation’

When one comes across the doctrine of laches, an immediate question which pops-up in our mind is that whether Laches and statute of limitations are interchangeably used legal terms, or are they alike. The objective of both the phenomenon is to ensure that the legal claims are brought within reasonable time period, so that the evidence and reliable witnesses can be easily found.  However the two on the surface appears to be the same but they are very different in a no. of ways.

Statute of LimitationDoctrine of Laches
Concerned with the statutory time period lost.Concerned with the reasonableness of a delay in filing a legal action.
Mandatory strict adherence to the law made before it.Case-specific. Depends on the judge’s discretion whether the delay was just or malicious.
It is a rule-governed behaviour and involves easily ascertainable facts.It follows a standard-like approach and considers broad range to facts.
Simplicity of administration.Complexity in attaining justice to the administration.
E.g. In Indenia, statute of limitation for rape is 7 years. If any individual approaches court asking to press the charges against rapist after 8 years of the incident, the complaint shall not lie as 7 year time prescribed by law has been exhausted.E.g. If a wife comes to ask a part of her’s in her husband’s will after 8 years of his death, it shall be left to the discretion of the judge whether he finds the delay reasonable or unreasonable.

Evolution of the Doctrine

Historically, this doctrine was developed in the Lord Chancellor’s court where the plaintiff in equity delayed to file the petition within reasonable period of time, consequently the relief was denied on the ground of laches even though no specific prejudice to the defendant was shown. In the contemporary world, most states across the world have adopted this standard-like approach in form of Statute of limitations applying to suits inequity. Furthermore, it was also established that even though the delay is for a shorter period of time than prescribed by the statute, it may still bar equitable relief if it is unreasonable and prejudicial to the defendant.

The application of this doctrine dates back in centuries when kings applied this doctrine to administer their kingdoms, precisely not under this umbrella term but rather holding this standard-like approach. The bible records one such case as an illustration of Solomon’s wisdom- where he resolved the well-known maternity dispute between the two harlots. One of the mother consented to barbarous suggestion and the other chose to lose the custody rather than to see her child killed. Solomon awards the custody to the latter applying his wisdom that the child would be safer with that woman.

Also, the administration applied this theory considering Interest Reipublicae ut sit finis litium i.e. it is to the interest of the society as a whole, that there be limit to litigation. This signified that all litigation should come to end to provide immediate justice for all.

Salient features of the Doctrine

  • What are the elements of the doctrine?

In order for any defendant or a judge to take the doctrine of laches into consideration the following elements must be satisfied to bar the petitioners from any cause of action.

  1. Knowledge of a claim by petitioners beforehand;
  2. Unreasonable delay in bringing the lawsuit;
  3. Negligence to assert a right or a claim;
  4. which taken together hurt the opponent.

If the abovementioned elements are met, it will disentitle the party to relief.

The doctrine of laches prevent the proprietor from taking undue advantage of the law by delaying the institution of a suit until there is more damage to be acquired most likely from the exploitation of the rights. 

  • How to assert a defence of laches?

In order for defendants to successfully claim laches as a defence, the defendant must prove that his status has been changed because of unreasonable delay in  filling the lawsuit, causing him to be in a worse position than he was at the time the claim should have been filed. For instance, delay in claim resulted in:

  1. Potential award of damages being larger;
  2. Property plaintiff seeks to recover has been sold;
  3. Witness testimony or evidence no longer available;
  4. or during the course of time plaintiff lost all this money and assets and is no longer in position to repay.

However, delays which have caused no harm to the other party of the proceeding may not be considered unreasonable delays and the defendants then could not escape from the said doctrine.’

  • What is the purpose of this doctrine?

In most instances, delay in filing a lawsuit has the effect of preventing the opposite party from putting on a fair defence. This happens because during the course of time witnesses go their ways, evidence disappears and memories fade away.Thus, the outcome is that it prejudices the position of an adverse party. As a result defendant by manoeuvring this doctrine puts on a defence for himself and shifts the onus probandi i.e. burden of proof upon the petitioner.

Landmark judgements and Application of the Doctrine

Laches and limitations are important factors to be considered in exercise of discretionary relief under Art.32 of the Indian Constitution. In context of laches vis-a-vis writ petitions under art.32, the relevant questions which might arise for consideration are:

  1. Whether any time-limit can be imposed by Supreme court on the petitions filed under art.32;
  2. Whether the Supreme Court would apply the provisions curtailed in Indian Limitation Act in accordance to the facts or any other limit.

This issue came up for judicial scrutiny for the first time in Tilokchand Motichand v. H.B Munshi, In the particular case the assistant collector of sales tax gave a refund of certain amount of sales tax paid by the petitioners with the direction that the refund should be passed onto the customers and receipts be produced before the officer. The petitioner however did not fulfil the condition and consequently the amount was forfeited to the state under 21(4) of the Bombay Sales Tax Act, 1953. The petitioners challenged the order of forfeiture under Art.226 of the constitution on the basis that forfeiture was without authority and violated art. 19(1) (g) & 265 of the constitution. However, the writ petition was dismissed. The petitioners did not take the matter in appeal to Supreme Court.

However, Supreme court opined in Kantilal Babulal &Brothers v. H.C Patel that the validity of section 21(4) of the Bombay Sales Tax Act, 1953 was put into jeopardy and was held that the section did not lay down any procedure for ascertaining whether in fact the  dealer concerned had collected any amount from the purchasers. After coming to know abiut this, the petitioners of Tilokchand case in wake of the concerned law being declared unconstitutional, in 1968,  filed a writ petition under art.32 for quashing the order of forfeiture passed in 1958.

The main issue before the SC in the instant case was whether any period of limitation could be specified for writ petitions under art.32. The court by majority rejected the petition. However, the issue resulted in sharp differences of opinion among the judges who constituted the bench.

Chief Justice Hidayatullah felt that the Supreme Court and High court should not deny relief under Articles 32 & 226 by applying the statute of limitation. The court should adopt a flexible approach and examine the facts of each case to see if laches could disqualify claim or not. In his words “In a suitable case the court may entertain a petition even after a lapse of time but it will all depend on the breach of fundamental right & the remedy claimed & how the delay arose”.

In the present case Chief Justice felt that the petitioners were guilty of laches which disentitled them to the relief. There existed no question of mistake of law on the part of petitioners whereas they should have approached the remedy up to the SC and thus should not be allowed to take advantage of later Supreme Court’s decision favourable to them.

Article 32 guarantees the right to approach the court but that does not restrict the court’s decision to grant relief. One of the consideration relevant for the exercise of such discretion if Laches.

In Ravindra Jain vs. UOI, the Supreme Court held that on the grounds of unreasonable delay, the remedy under Art.32 can be denied. Moreover, there has been no case to overrule the above mentioned judgement by any Supreme Court order.

Critical analysis

This doctrine prima facilely appears to be an easy defence for the defendants to raise in order to escape their liability from any charges or allegations raised against them, but the uncertainty it encompasses by vesting too much power in the hands of the court creates scepticism about its prolificness.

The inherent feature of this doctrine relies heavily upon the wisdom and good faith of the trial judge. It is not difficult to see how discretionary errors might happen in application of laches. If the law requires the judge sitting in equity to determine whether a plaintiff’s delay in bringing the law suit was unreasonable, undeniably there will be conflict of opinions as to what constitutes as an unreasonable delay.

Should a person with devitalizing chronic illness, but a sound mind  be excused for failure to bring a lawsuit; or; should a person who has  been mislead by a 3rd party into believing that he had no cause of action, be allowed when he finally comes to file a lawsuit, or would the delay be considered as unreasonable?

The possibility of exact such issues arising and being incorrectly decided is what must be looked into. Because at times when judicial wisdom and good faith fail us, which they sometimes do,  highly discretionary laches fail us too.  Nevertheless in its working it is often observed that laches approach victory to the administrators but not necessarily for communities.

Conclusion

It is accepted without doubt that the Doctrine of Laches has played a pivotal role in maintaining equity in the judicial system by crusading for vigilance and reprimanding those who have not complied with the same. However, the lack of awareness and education pertaining to the exercising of legal rights in India pose a threat to the theoretical application of Laches in the law. Nevertheless, the application of this doctrine by numerous judges in numerous cases has shaped and built the principles of this doctrine to suit contemporary needs, keeping the nuances that we face today in mind.

When looked in light of constitutional rights, it is important to reiterate the fact that no time limit can be set on wrongs done against constitutional rights as these are values and principles on which the entire nation is based on. Limiting these wrongs based on time would simply set a wrong precedent, with many wrongs committed being done away with. Thus, the application of this Doctrine is uncodified as it allows the judge to take decisions on limiting the cases based on the circumstances revolving around the case. The application of Laches also acts as a filter. As courts are often flooded with frivolous cases, the ability of the authorities to give due consideration to those cases that hold substantive value can be hampered, interfering with the principle of equity once again. It would, thus, be safe to say that the Doctrine of Laches is a watchdog of justice in a legal system, which ensures that only the right cases are addressed, and any malice or unrequired delay is properly dealt with due reprimand.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the Doctrine of Laches, through the years of its evolution, has eased the tracing of burden of proof on the plaintiff, simplifying the process of assessing his/her intent in the entire process, giving a clearer picture of the case that is to be dealt with.

Author: Sakshi Chauhan from ILS Law College, Pune.

Editor: Priyanshu Grover from Symbiosis Law School, NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh.

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