The last few months have been extremely unpredictable and extraordinary for the world as it continuously battles against the novel Corona virus (“Covid-19”) in all its spheres. In India, the economy has suffered a severe blow and the legal fraternity and judicial system seems to be no different due to a lack of digital infrastructure.
Recently, by an order dated May 6, 2020 (“May 06 Order”), the Hon’ble Supreme Court extended all periods of limitation prescribed under the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (“Arbitration Act”) and under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 (“NI Act”) w.e.f. March 15, 2020 until further orders. This order has a tremendous implication for strict timelines prescribed under these statutes. In this article, we will analyse whether the May 06 Order was necessary in light of the order dated March 23, 2020 (“March 23 Order”) passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the same proceedings and thereafter, explore the implication of the same.
II. Understanding the March 23 Order
Taking into consideration the effect of Covid-19 and to avoid litigants/lawyers rushing to courts/tribunals during the pandemic for filing their petitions/applications/suits/ appeals/all other proceedings within the period of limitation, as prescribed under the general law of limitation or under special laws (both Central and/or State), by the March 23 Order, the Hon’ble Supreme Court extended the “period of limitation in all such proceedings, irrespective of the limitation prescribed under the general law or Special Laws whether condonable or not w.e.f. 15th March 2020 till further order/s to be passed by this Court”. The said order was passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court while exercising its powers under Article 141 and 142 of the Constitution of India, 1950.
The March 23 Order was all-encompassing and covered all proceedings for which period of limitation has been prescribed under the general law (i.e. Limitation Act, 1963) or special law (including, inter alia, Arbitration Act, NI Act etc.).
III. Understanding the May 06 Order
On an interlocutory application filed for directions qua the Arbitration Act and the NI Act, by the May 06 Order, the Hon’ble Supreme Court extended all periods of limitation prescribed under the Arbitration Act and the NI Act w.e.f. March 15, 2020 until further orders. In the said order, the Hon’ble Supreme Court clarified that in case the limitation for any particular proceeding expired after March 15, 2020, then the period from March 15, 2020 to the date when the lockdown is lifted in the area, where cause of action arose or where the dispute lied, shall be extended for a period of 15 days after lifting of lockdown.
IV. Was there A Need for May 06 Order ?
As elucidated above, the March 23 Order extended the limitation period for all proceedings for which the same is prescribed under a general law or a special law. In the light of the same, the March 23 Order was applicable for limitation period prescribed under all statutes, including the Arbitration Act and NI Act.
The May 06 Order ushers in a clarification for cases in which the limitation expired after March 15, 2020, i.e. the period from March 15, 2020 till the lockdown is lifted shall be extended for a period of 15 days after the lockdown is lifted. The same is a much-needed clarification as lawyers/litigants have travelled back to their hometowns and travel to their work destinations may not occur immediately upon lifting of lockdown.
In Rategain Travel Technologies v Ujjwal Suri, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court relied upon the May 06 Order for holding that the limitation under the Arbitration Act has been extended by the Hon’ble Supreme Court and directed that the parties in cases concerning arbitration law have a period of two weeks, after the lockdown is lifted, to approach the court if required. It is uncertain whether the said clarification is applicable in cases other than Arbitration Act and NI Act and the courts across the country may have to interpret the March 23 Order and May 06 Order in light of the spirit in which these orders were passed in the first place.
Separately, the Hon’ble Madras High Court (Madurai Bench) in Settu S/o.Govindaraj v State, interpreted March 23 Order and May 06 Order to hold that these orders are not applicable to proceedings under Section 167 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“CrPC”). In a stark contradiction, in an order in S. Kasi v State, passed 3 days after the order in Settu case, the Hon’ble Madras High Court (Madurai bench) interpreted ‘all proceedings’ in the March 23 Order to include such proceedings. In light of these contradictory orders, by an order dated May 12, 2020 the Hon’ble Chief Justice has referred the issue i.e. whether the March 23 Order and May 06 Order are applicable to proceedings under Section 167 (2) of the CrPC, to a larger bench.
The pandemic has exposed inherent challenges in the judicial system which are being faced by it de novo. The Hon’ble Supreme Court and Hon’ble High Court(s) across the country are trying their best by adjudicating urgent matters by video conferencing and issuing directions including, inter alia, directions included in the March 23 Order and May 06 Order. By undertaking such actions, the Hon’ble Supreme Court is doing its best to do complete justice while the country is facing a pandemic of an unprecedented scale.
From the conflicting judgments of the Hon’ble Madras High Court (Madurai bench), it is apparent that the term ‘all proceedings’ in the March 23 Order is susceptible to multiple interpretations. While the same may be interpreted by the courts on a case to case time, it is imperative that the clarification issued in the May 06 Order is clarified to be applicable to all cases and not just cases pertaining to the Arbitration Act and NI Act to do complete justice.
 Suo Motu Writ (Civil) No. 3 of 2020.
 O.M.P. No. 14 of 2020, decided on May 11, 2020.
 CRL OP(MD). No.5291 of 2020, decided on May 8, 2020.
 CRL OP(MD). No.5296 of 2020, decided on May 11, 2020.