120 day Statutory Period for filing Written Statement ‘Mandatory’ under the Commercial Courts Act: Supreme Court Holds
A bench of Justice Nariman and Justice Saran of the Hon’ble Supreme Court has held in SCG Contracts India P. Ltd. v. K.S. Chamankar Infrastructure P. Ltd. that the provisions of Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of High Courts Act, 2015 with regard to filing of written statements within 120 days from date of service of summons is mandatory and any delay beyond 120 days cannot be condoned by the Court. While holding so, the bench observed as under 8) The Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of High Courts Act, 2015 came into force on 23.10.2015 bringing in their wake certain amendments to the Code of Civil Procedure. In Order V, Rule 1, sub-rule (1), for the second proviso, the following proviso was substituted:“Provided further that where the defendant fails to file the written statement within the said period of thirty days, he shall be allowed to file the written statement on such other days, as may be specified by the Court, for reasons to be recorded in writing and on payment of such costs as the court deems fit, but which shall not be later than one hundred twenty days from the date of service of summons and on expiry of one hundred and twenty days from the date of service of summons, the defendant shall forfeit the right to file the written statement and the court shall not allow the written statement to be taken on record.” Equally, in Order VIII Rule 1, a new proviso was substituted as follows:“Provided that where the defendant fails to file the written statement within the said period of thirty days, he shall be allowed to file the written statement on such other day, as may be specified by the court, for reasons to be recorded in writing and on payment of such costs as the Court deems fit, but which shall not be later than one hundred and twenty days from the date of service of summons and on expiry of one hundred and twenty days from the date of service of summons, the defendant shall forfeit the right to file the written statement and the court shall not allow the written statement to be taken on record.” This was re-emphasized by re-inserting yet another proviso in Order VIII Rule 10 CPC, which reads as under:-“Procedure when party fails to present written statement called for by Court.- Where any party from whom a written statement is required under Rule 1 or Rule 9 fails to present the same within the time permitted or fixed by the Court, as the case may be, the Court shall pronounce judgment against him, or make such order in relation to the suit as it thinks fit and on pronouncement of such judgment a decree shall be drawn up.
Provided further that no Court shall make an order to extend the time provided under Rule 1 of this Order for filing of the written statement.” A perusal of these provisions would show that ordinarily, a written statement is to be filed within a period of 30 days.However, a grace period of a further 90 days is granted which the Court may employ for reasons to be recorded in writing and payment of such costs as it deems fit to allow such written statement to come on record. What is of great importance is the fact that beyond 120 days from the date of service of summons, the defendant shall forfeit the right to file the written statement and the Court shall not allow the written statement to be taken on record. This is further buttressed by the proviso in Order VIII Rule 10 also adding that the Court has no further power to extend the time beyond this period of 120 days.9) In Bihar Rajya Bhumi Vikas Bank Samiti (supra), a question was raised as to whether Section 34(5)of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, inserted by Amending Act 3 of 2016 is mandatory or directory. In part 11 of the said judgment, this Court referred to Kailash vs. Nanhku, (2005) 4 SCC 480 referring to the text of Order 8 Rule 1 as it stood pre the amendment made by the Commercial Courts Act. It also referred to the Salem Advocate Bar Association vs. Union of India, (2005) 6 SCC 344, which, like the Kailash judgment, held that the mere expression “shall” in Order 8 Rule 1 would not make the provision mandatory. This Court then went on to discuss in para 17 State vs. N.S. Gnaneswaran, (2013) 3 SCC 594 in which Section 154(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure was held to be directory inasmuch as no consequence was provided if the Section was breached. In para 22 by way of contrast to Section 34, Section 29-A of the Arbitration Act was set out. This Court then noted in para 23 as under: “23. It will be seen from this provision that, unlike Sections 34(5) and (6), if an award is made beyond the stipulated or extended period contained in the section, the consequence of the mandate of the arbitrator being terminated is expressly provided. This provision is in stark contrast to Sections 34(5) and (6) where, as has been stated hereinabove, if the period for deciding the application under Section 34 has elapsed, no consequence is provided. This is one more indicator that the same Amendment Act, when it provided time periods in different situations, did so intending different consequences.”10) Several High Court judgments on the amended Order VIII Rule 1 have now held that given the consequence of the non-filing of a written statement, the amended provisions of the CPC will have to be held to be mandatory. [See Oku Tech Private Limited vs. Sangeet Agarwal & Ors. by a learned Single Judge of the Delhi High Court dated 11.08.2016 in CS (OS) No. 3390/2015 as followed by several other judgments including a judgment of the Delhi High Court in Maja Cosmetics vs. Oasis Commercial Pvt. Ltd. 2018 SCC Online Del 6698.11) We are of the view that the view taken by the Delhi High Court in these judgments is correct in view of the fact that the consequence of forfeiting a right to file the written statement; non-extension of any further time; and the fact that the Court shall not allow the written statement to be taken on record all points to the fact that the earlier law on Order VIII Rule 1 on the filing of written statement underOrder VIII Rule 1 has now been set at naught.12) However, learned counsel appearing for the respondents relied strongly upon the judgment in Bhanu Kumar Jain (supra) and Shaikh Salim Haji Abdul Khayumsab (supra) and, in particular, paras 22 and 27 of the first judgment and paras 4 & 19 of the second judgment.13) We are of the view that since both these judgments dealt with the pre-amendment position, they would not be of any direct reliance insofar as the facts of the present case is concerned.14) Learned counsel appearing for the respondents also relied upon R.K. Roja vs. U.S. Rayudu and Another (supra) for the proposition that the defendant is entitled to file an application for rejection of the plaint under Order VII Rule 11 before filing his written statement. We are of the view that this judgment cannot be read in the manner sought for by the learned counsel appearing on behalf of the respondents. Order VII Rule 11 proceedings are independent of the filing of a written statement once a suit has been filed. In fact, part 6 of that judgment records “However, we may hasten to add that the liberty to file an application for rejection under Order 7 Rule 11 CPC cannot be made as a ruse for retrieving the lost opportunity to file the written statement”.15) Learned counsel appearing for the respondents then argued that it cannot be assumed that the learned Single Judge did not know about these amendments when he passed the first impugned order dated 05.12.2017. We do not wish to enter upon this speculative arena. He then argued that since this judgment permitted him to file the written statement beyond 120 days, it was an act of the Court which should prejudice no man. This doctrine cannot be used when the res is not yet judicata. The 05.12.2017 order is res sub judice inasmuch as its correctness has been challenged before us.16) Learned counsel for the respondents then strongly relied upon the inherent powers of the Court to state that, in any case, a procedural provision such as contained in the amendment, which may lead to unjust consequences can always, in the facts of a given case, be ignored where such unjust consequences follow, as in the facts of the present case. We are again of the view that this argument has also no legs to stand on, given the judgment of this Court in Manohar Lal Chopra vs. Rai Bahadur Rao Raja Seth Hiralal,  Suppl 1 SCR 450. In this judgment, the Court held:
“The suit at Indore which had been instituted later could stay in view of s.10 of the Code. The provisions of that section are clear, definite and mandatory. A Court in which a subsequent suit has been filed is prohibited from proceeding with the trial of that suit in certain specified circumstances.When there is a special provision in the Code of Civil Procedure for dealing with the contingencies of two such suits being instituted, recourse to the inherent powers under s.151 is not justified…” (at page 470) Clearly, the clear, definite and mandatory provisions of Order V read with Order VIII Rule 1 and 10 cannot be circumvented by recourse to the inherent power under Section 151 to do the opposite of what is stated therein.17) Clearly, therefore, the 05.12.2017 order which applies in the face of the amendments made to the Civil Procedure Code cannot be sustained. When we come to the second order dated 24.09.2019, the only reason for this order is that 05.12.2017 has attained finality.18) Factually speaking, this is not correct as a Special Leave Petition from the said order has been filed. Even otherwise, this Court in Canara Bank vs. N.G. Subbaraya Setty and Anr. (supra) has held (page 3414):“(ii) An issue of law which arises between the same parties in a subsequent suit or proceeding is not resed judicata if, by an erroneous decision given on a statutory prohibition in the former suit or proceeding, the statutory prohibition is not given effect to. This is despite the fact that the matter in issue between the parties may be the same as that directly and substantially in issue in the previous suit or proceeding. This is for the reason that in such cases, the rights of the parties are not the only matter for consideration (as is the case of an erroneous interpretation of a statute inter parties), as the public policy contained in the statutory prohibition cannot be set at naught.This is for the same reason as that contained in matters which pertain to issues of law that raise jurisdictional questions. We have seen how, in Natraj Studios (AIR 1981 SC 537) (supra), it is the public policy of the statutory prohibition contained in Section 28 of the Bombay Rent Act that has to be given effect to. Likewise, the public policy contained in other statutory prohibitions, which need not necessarily go to the jurisdiction of a Court, must equally be given effect to, as otherwise special principles of law are fastened upon parties when special considerations relating to public policy mandate that this cannot be done.” The aforesaid para applies on all fours to the facts of the present case, as even assuming that the 05.12.2017 order is final, res judicata cannot stand in the way of an erroneous interpretation of a statutory prohibition. The present is one such case. Therefore, the second order must also be set aside.