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Period of limitation in criminal law: A boon or bane?

Updated: May 31


‘Limitation’ refers to a legally specified period beyond which an action may be defeated. Any suit/trial prior to the institution must qualify the indirect requirement of limitation. Thus, the proceeding must be within the prescribed limitation period. The objective behind such provision is to protect the accused from unnecessary harassment by prioritizing the presumption of innocence. The concept of ‘Limitation period’ is commonly used in civil matters such as contracts, Family Law, torts etcetera but seems peculiar in criminal matters.

The requirement of ‘Limitation period’ in general can be traced back to two famous legal maxims i.e. "Nullum tempus occurrit regi" and "vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt." The former maxim states that the rights and power of the supreme is above the doctrine of limitation. On the other hand the latter maxims implies a duty on the victim/plaintiff to be vigilant in exercising their rights. Thus, law should only assist those who are vigilant and should not cater to irresponsible and lazy individuals.

These two maxims raised a dilemma in ascertaining the middle ground as choosing any extreme will either violate the right of the Victim or of the accused. The doctrine of ‘Limitation’ has perfectly struck a balance in ensuring justice to the victims and prevent accused from unnecessary troubles. This essay will focus on the significance of the doctrine of ‘Limitation’ and will analyse the same in the criminal law through analysing catena of judgments, with the objective of identifying the need and success in incorporating it in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

Limitation: The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

Chapter XXXVI of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 incorporates the Doctrine of ‘Limitation’ for criminal offences. The chapter contains 7 sections ranging from Section 467 to Section 473 of CrPC, 1973. The rationale behind incorporating limitation period is that, criminal matters heavily depends upon the witness testimony which obscures with the passage of time due to which the investigation for the detained/arrested accused under CrPC is also time bound under Section 167(2). Thus opening of cases beyond a reasonable time will compromise the witness testimony and may lead the court on a false trail due to lack and non-authoritative evidences costing the accused.

The period of limitation under CrPC, 1973 varies from six months to three years depending upon the duration of punishment of the offence. Offence punishable with just fine or 6 months of imprisonment attracts a limitation period of 6 months. Whereas offence punishable with imprisonment up to one year with/without fine attracts a limitation period of 1 year and offences punishable with imprisonment up to three years with/without fine holds a limitation period of 3 years. However, offences holding punishment higher than three years does not attract limitation period and the case can be filed at any time post the occurrence of the offence.

Thus, in a layman term any offence under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 or under any other criminal legislation, unless holds any special provision contrary to the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, attracts a period of limitation ranging from 6 months to 3 years. Thus, if the complainant whose proceeding is barred by such limitation cannot proceed with such proceedings post the limitation period. However, the legislation has ensured that if a proceeding holds merit then it is not debarred on the admission stage itself.

The concept of allowing certain proceedings post limitation period is known as the ‘condonation of delay.’ The court holds the power to reject the delay and allow the case to be admitted on merits. However, the condition associated to such condonation is two-fold. First, that the prosecution must explain the rationale behind such delay up to the satisfaction of the court. Whereas, in certain circumstances the court can condone delay when it is necessary to do so in the interests of justice. The legislative intent behind such provision is to ensure that such limitation is not absolute and does not deprive the victim of justice just on the basis of technicality.

The concept of condonation of delay ensures rationality to prevail over absoluteness but does not provide any objective guidelines or framework determining such rationale. Thus, giving the honourable judiciary an arbitrary power to determine reasonable grounds. However, enactment of certain non-binding but persuasive guidelines or framework can provide an objectivity to such reasoning. The honourable Supreme Court in catena of judgments has provided the broad themes which can be used to create such a framework.

The honourable Court in Mohsina & Ors v. Union of India held that illiteracy, poverty, and non-ability of a victim is a satisfactory rationale to condone delay. The victim is an illiterate and poor lady; she lost her husband in the train accident; her father-in-law was pursuing the case before the Claims Tribunal; her father-in-law expired, whereupon her mother-in-law threw her out from the matrimonial home, and she is residing with her father who is also handicapped; she was working as a maid servant to make both ends meet due to which she made a 804 days delay in filing the suit and seek condonation. The court after analysing the surrounding facts held that considering the extreme poverty and illiteracy of the appellants, the application is allowed and the delay in filing the appeal is condoned.

Whereas, the honourable court in State of Tamil Nadu v. N. Suresh Rajan & Ors., held that delay due to lawyer’s contradictory advice is condoned. The complainant argued that the lawyer advised him in contradiction to file the Special leave petition before this honourable court so the delay of 1954 days be condoned.

The court in Sarah Mathew v. the Institute of Cardio-Vascular Diseases held that the delay caused by magistrate in taking cognizance of the offence must be condoned as the victim’s intent was bona-fide and was out of his control. On the other hand, the honourable court in Provident Fund Inspector, Ludhiana v. Harminder Singh & Anr., adjudicated on the issue that the whether the fact that the legislation is a beneficial legislation is sufficient to mechanically condone the delay. The court while adjudicating upon the Employment provident fund act, 1952 provided a general ruling that the mere fact of a legislation being beneficial does not condone the delay automatically, circumstantial analysis is must.

The list or structure shall not be exhaustive and must be open to amendment. Additionally, such list must also be non-binding and only persuasive as to provide the victims/ complainant or lawyers sufficient understanding as to file an informed application for condonation of delay. Thus, catena of judgments and certain other factors such as societal pressure in cases of sexual harassment etc. must be considered for enactment of a structured framework to avoid the arbitrariness and to assist the judges in efficiently applying judicial mind to cases of condonation of delay.

The two additional factors to be considered is the lawyer’s negligence and delay caused due to red - tapism in the governmental department. The former issue has been adjudicated by the honourable Supreme Court in Boutique Hotels India (P) Ltd. V. ACIT (ITAT Delhi). The court held that pleader’s gross carelessness/negligence does not hold a sufficient ground to condone delay. Whereas, the court stated that the delay can be condoned when it is proved that the lawyer or adviser made a bona fide mistake and the council must disclose the particular circumstance when such advice was given. Thus, mistaken advice given by a lawyer negligently and without due care as well as a general statement as an excuse is not sufficient cause.

The latter issue was addressed by the Honourable Supreme Court in University of Delhi v. Union of India, the court held that red - tapism cannot be considered as sufficient cause to condone delay. Thus, unless the government bodies, agencies have a reasonable and acceptable explanation for the delay and there was bona fide effort, there is no need to accept the usual explanation of file delayed due to red - tapism. The court further held that:

The government departments are under a special obligation to ensure that they perform their duties with diligence and commitment. Condonation of delay is an exception and should not be used as an anticipated benefit for the government departments. The law shelters everyone under the same light and should not be swirled for the benefit of a few.”


The period of limitation for criminal offences is necessary as to avoid filing of frivolous litigation as to secure the alleged accused from harassment and to safeguard the valuable time of the Judiciary. However, it is also significant to consider that a legitimate case is not rejected just on the basis of the technicality of limitation. Thus, there lies a provision which allows the judiciary to apply its judicial mind and decide whether the case holds any merit to qualify for condonation of delay. It is also necessary to consider that there lies a need to create a non-exhaustive and non-binding list of rationale suitable to hold condonation of delay as to limit the arbitrary power of the court as well as to provide the complainant and lawyer to have sufficient ground to seek the condonation of delay. Such list can be prepared through judicial precedents and certain other aspects.

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