Calcutta High Court condones 1452 days delay in filing appeal against acquittal; criticises CBI’s approach

calcutta high court

Calcutta High Court: In an appeal against order of acquittal, accompanied with an application for the condonation of a delay of 1452 days, almost four years, a single-judge bench comprising of Bibhas Ranjan De,* J., despite criticising the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)’s conduct and acknowledging CBI’s duty to file within the limitation period, condoned the delay in filing the special leave petition, citing the need to advance the cause of justice and considering the explanations provided in the application. The Court also directed the CBI to ensure more vigilance in future proceedings.

Brief Facts

In the instant matter arose from case alleging fraud upon Canara Bank to the tune of approximately Rs. 2.19 crores, the petitioner-CBI filed a petition under Section 378(4) of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (CrPC) seeking special leave to file an appeal against the judgment and order of acquittal of all six opposite parties, accompanied by an application for the condonation of a delay of 1452 days, almost four years, under Section 378(5) of the CrPC.

Moot Point

Whether the CBI, had demonstrated sufficient cause for the delay of 1452 days in filing the petition for special leave within the prescribed period of limitation under Section 378(5) of the CrPC?

Parties’ Contentions

The petitioner contended that the delay was due to the necessity of obtaining approval from higher authorities and bureaucratic delays, exacerbated by the pandemic-related restrictions. It was argued for the exercise of discretion under Section 5 of the Limitation Act, 1963 to condone the delay.

The respondents disputed the grounds for condonation, arguing that the petitioner provided vague and baseless explanations for the delay and bureaucratic delays and lack of diligence on the part of the petitioner were not sufficient reasons. The respondents questioned the relevance of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially considering that the limitation period had already expired before the outbreak. The respondents highlighted the procedural guidelines from the CBI Crime Manual, emphasising the petitioner’s obligation to comply with them. Additionally, the respondents challenged the merit of the case, arguing that witnesses failed to prove the allegations, and funds were recovered in a separate proceeding before the Debts Recovery Tribunal.

Court’s Observation

The Court stated that the principle derived from the precedents cited by the CBI is that the term “sufficient cause” under Section 5 of the Limitation Act, 1963 or similar provisions should be interpreted liberally to advance substantial justice, provided there is no negligence, inaction, or lack of good faith on the part of the litigant. The courts should not hastily reject explanations for delay but rather consider them carefully, avoiding a tendency to find fault without proper scrutiny. While government entities should not receive special treatment, practical considerations regarding their functioning should be considered.

Contrary to the above, the Court noted that the precedents relied upon by the respondents emphasised that individuals involved in legal matters should be aware of relevant timelines and cannot claim special treatment simply because the government is involved. The burden lies on government bodies to provide plausible and acceptable explanations for delays, and procedural red tape cannot be used as a blanket excuse. Government departments are held to a high standard of diligence and should not expect leniency in condoning delays.

The Court observed that in the present case, the CBI sought condonation of delay on three grounds — delays in obtaining official approval, disruptions caused by the nationwide lockdown, and shortcomings on the part of the legal representatives. Referring to the Sheo Raj Singh v. Union of India, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1278, the Court acknowledged the impersonal nature of central agencies like the CBI warranting leniency regarding delays in obtaining departmental approvals. Regarding delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court noted that while the exclusion period specified by the Supreme Court did not apply in this instance due to the expiration of the limitation period before the pandemic’s onset, however, acknowledged the impact of the nationwide lockdown and subsequent disruptions on official work and inadvertent delays caused by it.

Rejecting the arguments regarding non-action by the legal representatives, including the vacancy in the post of Additional Solicitor General and the withdrawal of the engaged advocate, the Court deemed the same as unjustifiable and stated that while the CBI should have been more diligent, the lapses do not necessarily imply malice or dilatory tactics.

Court’s Decision

The Court, while critical of the CBI’s handling of the matter, ultimately decided to condone the delay and dispose of the application, emphasising the need to balance procedural requirements with the pursuit of justice. All parties are instructed to act according to the order, and the matter is scheduled for further proceedings.

[CBI v. Binod Kumar Maheswari, 2024 SCC OnLine Cal 1339, order dated 09-02-2024]

*Judgment by Justice Bibhas Ranjan De

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Mr. Anirban Mitra, Mr. Manabendranath Bandyopadhyay, Counsel for the Appellant/CBI

Mr. Lal Mohan Hazra, Mrs. Moutusi Hazra, Counsel for the Opposite Party 1, 2, 5 and 6

Mr. Satadru Lahiri, Mr. Sourav Paul, Counsel for the Opposite Party 4

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