Late, Later, Late-est
The perils of delay in most judicial systems
 
English is a funny language. The superlative for late, if such a word existed, would mean the newest, most recent. Semantics aside, we take on a matter that excites a lot of passion in court proceedings. The matter of time. How late is late?
 
When Debashis Basu was queried on the one reason why people lose cases, his immediate reply was: ‘Procrastination’. All too true. Yet, most judicial systems, like ours, have an inbuilt long fuse. Though it may not seem right at first glance, it does make more sense in the whole gamut of things.
 
A man had a lease on a flat. He died during the pendency of the lease. His son was appointed heir and went on to defend the proceedings as the legal representative. On 5 April 2012, an order was passed thereby forfeiting the lease and for the estate, now controlled by the son, to pay arrears of rent and service charges. This totalled about Rs22 lakh, but considered reasonable by UK standards. 
 
The son now asked for relief from forfeiture and the next date of hearing was set 22 months away. Just before that fateful day, the two antagonists signalled a truce. They agreed on certain points and signed consent terms.
 
Consent terms, once signed, are etched in stone. Well, almost. Neither party can re-agitate the matter in court. The stage of finality has been reached. The matter is determined. That, however, leaves a grey area. What if one, or both, parties renege on the terms? Would it mean contempt of court? If one looked upon consent terms as a court order, the answer would be a ‘yes’. But consent terms, though they have the stamp of court approval, can hardly be called a judgement. 
In this case, the son could not fulfil the requirements of the terms in time. The other party asked for execution, that is, repossession of the flat. The son, then, hurriedly did as he had been asked to do.
 
You be the judge. On which side would you lean? Son complies, but under threat of eviction. He is late in keeping his promise. He may have delayed matters still further if the sword were not hanging on his head. He paid up, with interest, but under pressure. Did he intend to keep his promise otherwise?
 
The other side contended that the court cannot extend the time period after the consent terms had been accepted by both the parties. They said that there were no special circumstances, no unusual reason. 
 
The court of appeal saw merit in the son’s behaviour. Late, yes. But he did pay up and kept the other parts of the bargain, too. The court also decided that it had jurisdiction in the matter and was competent to decide. It must be noted that the issue was one of a residence. The courts are usually sympathetic to the occupier. After all, it is a matter of a roof over one’s head.
 
Moreover, the son had complied. The courts look at the correction factor. If the error has been rectified, even a bit later than agreed upon, the court declares that it is satisfied with the compliance.
 
The son was lucky, as he was in possession. Now, does that mean that one can delay legal issues? The answer is a categorical ‘No’. Most often, when a legal problem arises, people refuse to take legal advice. They think that the trouble, like the rains, will go away. Unfortunately, it festers. The sore turns into an open wound; goes septic. Gangrene sets in. By then, it’s often too late.
 
Ask people why they resisted going to a lawyer and they will invariably mention the cost involved. But is the cost of not approaching an advocate, till now, any less? In all likelihood, it could be, and often will be, many times more.
 
The old adage, ‘A stitch in time, saves nine’, is most apt in matters legal. Please do not wait. It will prove costly. And one may lose the case.
 
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected])
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