Inside Supreme Court’s decision on principles of Adverse Possession and Limitation in property disputes

principles of Adverse Possession and Limitation

Supreme Court: In a suit for declaration of title, lasting for about a decade, the Division Bench of Hrishikesh Roy and Sanjay Karol, JJ. allowed the appeal against the High Court’s decision and discussed the interplay between adverse possession and limitation in property disputes.

Factual Matrix

A mother executed a settlement deed (first settlement deed) transferring the rights in her property to her two sons for their lifetime and thereafter to her elder son’s two daughters namely, ‘A’ and ‘B’ (‘Respondent’). Subsequently, the two sons executed a second settlement deed in 1952 reverting the said interests in the properties back to their mother. A third settlement deed was executed by the mother, bequeathing absolute interest in such properties only in favour of her two sons. The younger son had no children and his wife, namely ‘P’ enjoyed life interest in the property bequeathed to her husband. The present Appellant is their adopted daughter. In 1993, A’s husband (plaintiff) filed a suit, which is the subject matter of the present lis, praying for a declaration as the owner of the property since he was the sole heir of A in terms of the First Settlement Deed. The Trial Court held that the first settlement deed was genuine. The First Appellate Court in the appeal against the Trial Court’s decision confirmed the same and the appeal was dismissed.

In the second appeal, the High Court held that the interest vested in ‘A’ was full and not life interest. Therefore, upon her death, the interest does not revert to the settlor. In other words, that ‘A’ died before her interest stood fructified, is an incorrect statement and it is only the right of enjoyment that stood postponed till the life interest of the two sons.

Further, it was held that the documents executed between the mother and her sons and subsequently, ‘P’ and the present appellant, were only in respect of life interest i.e. a limited right and the other two deeds of settlement executed after the First Settlement Deed are against or beyond the competency of the executants and therefore, not binding.


1. Whether suit by A’s husband for declaration as owner based on the first settlement deed, eventually filed in the year 1993 was barred by limitation?

The Court perused Section 27 and Articles 58 and 65 of the First Schedule to the Limitation Act, 1963. Section 27 provides for extinguishment of right to property; Article 58 and 65 provides three years as period of limitation to obtain any other declaration and twelve years for possession of immovable property or any interest therein based on title, respectively. Regarding the question that when will the period of limitation run, for A’s husband to stake a claim on the properties, the Court said that if the period of limitation was to run from the date of the second settlement deed, then the rights would be extinguished in 1964 and if the same were to run from either 1974 or 1976, then after 1986 or 1988 respectively, A’s husband had no right in the property on the plea of adverse possession. The Court referred to Gopalakrishna v. Narayanagowda, (2019) 4 SCC 592 wherein it was observed that a reversioner ordinarily must file a suit for possession within 12 years from the death of the limited heir or widow. The Court applied the said metric to the matter at hand and said that it is after the death of P, that the reversioner, or in this case the heir of the reversioner (A’s husband) ought to have filed the suit. The Court said that the subject matter of appeal was the suit for declaration simpliciter and not possession. The Court said that the possession still rested with P’s heir. Further, the Court said that the twelve-year period stood expired in 2016 (with the death of P in the year 2004). Therefore, the Court held that the suit filed in 1993 was barred by limitation.

Adverse Possession

The Court referred to Saroop Singh v. Banto, (2005) 8 SCC 330, wherein it was said that Article 65 of the First Schedule to the Limitation Act states that the starting point of limitation does not commence from the date when the right of ownership arises to the plaintiff but commences from the date the defendant’s possession becomes adverse. It was observed that the physical fact of exclusive possession and the animus possidendi to hold as owner in exclusion to the actual owner are the most important factors that are to be accounted for in cases related to adverse possession. The Court said that the plea for adverse possession is not a pure question of law but a blend of question of fact and law. Therefore, the Court said that a person claiming adverse possession should show, as to on what date he got the possession; what was the nature of his possession; whether the factum of possession was known to the other party; how long his possession has continued; and that his possession was open and undisturbed. Further, the Court added that since the person claiming adverse possession is trying to defeat the rights of the true owner, it is for him to clearly plead and establish all facts necessary to prove his adverse possession.

Further, the Court referred to Hemaji Waghaji Jat v. Bhikhabhai Khengarbhai Harijan, (2009) 16 SCC 517, wherein it was reiterated “that efficacy of adverse possession law in most jurisdictions depends on strong limitation statutes by operation of which, right to access the Court expires through efflux of time. As against the rights of the paper-owner, in the context of adverse possession, there evolves a set of competing rights in favour of the adverse possessor who has, for a long period of time, cared for the land, developed it, as against the owner of the property who has ignored the property. Modern statutes of limitation operate, as a rule, not only to cut off one’s right to bring an action for the recovery of property that has been in the adverse possession of another for a specified time but also to vest the possessor with title. The intention of such statute is not to punish one who neglects to assert rights but to protect those who have maintained the possession of property for the time specified by the statute under a claim of right or colour of title”.

The Court said that the Part III of the Schedule to the Limitation Act gives the time period within which the declaration of forgery of an instrument either issued or registered; declaring an adoption to be invalid or never having taken place; and to obtain any other declaration, can be sought. The Court noted that it was said in Shakti Bhog Food Industries Ltd. v. Central Bank of India, (2020) 17 SCC 260 that the right to sue accrues ‘from the date on which the cause of action arose first’.

The Court noted that in the present case, the suit for declaration was filed in 1993 and said that this implies that the cause of action to seek any other declaration i.e., a declaration of A’s husband in the property, should have arisen only in the year 1990. The Court explained that the possible causes of action would be at the time of the Second Settlement Deed (1952) or younger son’s deed of settlement in favour of ‘P’ or at the time of ‘P’ vesting of the property in favour of the present appellant (1993) or at the death of ‘P’ (2004) where apart from declaration, he ought to have sought the relief of possession as well. The Court said that no record was available to show that a declaration was sought, much less within the stipulated period of three years on such possible occasions.

2. Whether the suit for declaration simpliciter was maintainable in view of Section 34 of the SRA, 1963?

The Court perused Section 34 of the SRA, 1963 which provides for “discretion of Court as to declaration of status or right”. The Court noted that the proviso to Section 34 provides that “no Court shall make any such declaration where the plaintiff, being able to seek further relief than a mere declaration of title, omits to do so”. The Court referred to Venkataraja v. Vidyane Doureradjaperumal, (2014) 14 SCC 502 wherein it was elucidated that the purpose behind the inclusion of the proviso was to prevent multiplicity of proceeding and that a mere declaratory decree remains non-executable in most cases.

The Court added that it is now well settled that the lapse of limitation bars only the remedy but does not extinguish the title. The Court said that the High Court overlooked the said aspect in reversing the findings of the Trial Court and the First Appellate Court.

The Court noted that A’s husband was aware that the appellant was in possession of the suit property and therefore it was incumbent upon him to seek the relief which follows. The Court also noted that A’s husband had himself stated that the respondent was in possession of the subject property and had sought to transfer possession of the same, thereby establishing that he himself was not in possession of the subject property. Further, the Court noted that after the death of the life-estate holder in 2004, there was no attempt made by the A’ husband to amend the plaint to seek the relief of recovery of possession. The Court reiterated that it is settled law that amendment of a plaint can be made at any stage of a suit, even at the second appellate stage.

Therefore, the Court held that the judgment of the Trial Court, as also the First Appellate Court, which dismissed the suit of A’s husband on the grounds of limitation cannot be faulted with. The Court set aside the impugned Judgment and restored the decision of Trial Court and the First Appellate Court.

[Vasantha v. Rajalakshmi, 2024 SCC OnLine SC 132, Decided on: 13-02-2024]

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