The doctrine of laches refers to a lack of diligence and action in making legal claims or going forward, especially with respect to equity, with legal compliance of a right. An unreasonable wait is not admissible in the court and thus the laches doctrine is applied, which is called the Restriction Act 1963. Laches doctrine is essentially the… Read More »

The doctrine of laches refers to a lack of diligence and action in making legal claims or going forward, especially with respect to equity, with legal compliance of a right. An unreasonable wait is not admissible in the court and thus the laches doctrine is applied, which is called the Restriction Act 1963. Laches doctrine is essentially the arguments for equity protection and equal redress. This article analyses the doctrine of laches and also looks at various landmark judgements which...

The doctrine of laches refers to a lack of diligence and action in making legal claims or going forward, especially with respect to equity, with legal compliance of a right. An unreasonable wait is not admissible in the court and thus the laches doctrine is applied, which is called the Restriction Act 1963. Laches doctrine is essentially the arguments for equity protection and equal redress. This article analyses the doctrine of laches and also looks at various landmark judgements which applied this doctrine.

I. Introduction

The doctrine of laches is built on the concept Vigilantibus non dormientius aequitas subventil implying equity protects even the indolent, the vigilant but not the ones who sleep over their rights. The court shall, in compliance with this act or doctrine, preserve the rights of people who are aware of their rights, not of those who have fallen asleep because of their rights.

The defence invoker argues that the opposite side has fallen asleep as a result of this pause and the facts have changed and witnesses and testimony may have been missed or no longer available. In such a way that it is no longer a fair decision to grant the arguments of the victims, then file a civil action or to appeal in the higher court, there is a limitation clause if an individual delay bringing a lawsuit in the higher court, the person may forfeit the right to file the petition.

This doctrine is a realistic application of the Vigilantibus non dormientibus aequitas subvenit Latin maxim, which suggests that the law comes to the rescue of diligent people, and not to those who sleep on their rights. [1] The expression “laches” itself is derived from the Latin word “laxus”, meaning lax. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, “unreasonable delay in pursuing a right or claim that is reasonable and in some way, prejudices the party against whom relief is sought.” It is also called as sleeping on rights.

Chancery developed this doctrine to prevent defendants from the situation when the plaintiff delays the filing of the complaints beyond the period specified in its statute by law. In such a case, this doctrine of laches helps the defendant by denying the plaintiff any relief, even if no specific prejudice against the defendant could be proved. As of today, in the form of the Limitations Act, which applies to cases of inequity; most countries have this doctrine.

Limitation and laches cannot be used interchangeably as Limitation Acts only concern the time that has elapsed, while laches is not only concerned with the time that has elapsed, but also with the reason for the delay. This will be developed later in the article. One point that can be deduced is that in order to get relief and prove one’s standing before the court under Article 226 and Article 32 of our Constitution, this doctrine is an important factor to be considered.

II. Evolution of the Doctrine

Historically, in the court of the Lord Chancellor, this doctrine was developed where the plaintiff in equity delayed filing the petition within a reasonable period of time, therefore the relief was denied on the basis of laches even though no specific prejudice was shown to the defendant. In the contemporary world, this standard-like approach has been adopted by most states worldwide in the form of the Statute of Limitations for Inequity. In addition, it was also established that although the delay is for a shorter period of time than stipulated by the statute, if it is unreasonable and prejudicial to the defendant, it may still bar equitable relief.

The implementation of this doctrine goes back to centuries when kings used this doctrine to rule their territories, not precisely under this umbrella concept, but rather in this standard-like approach. One such case is recorded in the Bible as an instance of the wisdom of Solomon, in which the well-known maternity conflict between the two harlots was settled. One of the mothers agreed to the barbarous suggestion, and the other opted not to have her infant murdered, but to forfeit custody. Solomon grants the custody of the latter by applying his insight that the infant of that woman will be safer.

The administration has extended this principle, considering “Interest Reipublicae ut sit finis litium”, i.e. that there is a cap to lawsuits in the interest of society as a whole. This meant that all litigation was expected to stop in order to ensure immediate justice for all.

III. Source of Doctrine of Laches

Notionally, “the Laches doctrine is not based on an active violation of an obligation, but on a passive refusal to pursue a right.”[2] We must go over the most common phrase previously used to describe it in order to better examine the source of the Doctrine of Laches.[3]

Nothing can call forth the court to action but conscious, good faith and reasonable diligence. It suggests that a simple pause is adequate under this doctrine to get relief and it is not necessary to take into account the underlying cause. However, only in 1879 in the case of, Gunton v. Carroll[4], It was ruled that:

Laches, properly, is present only in situations where the complainant was prejudiced, which was known to the appellant, thus jeopardising the argument of the defendant when any facts could have been undermined due to the delay.

Contrary to the same conclusions in the case of Bassett v. Corporation, the same condition is therefore found in other cases. Wherever such a situation is not defined, it is left to the discretion of the judge to determine whether or not to grant relief, as has been provided in certain situations by the courts, even though the restriction time has been extended by the lawsuit. It can also be inferred that the true purpose of this doctrine is not to delay but to provide justice, even though it is late.[5].

Although it seems to minimise the need for such interference, the existence of the statute of limitation is by no means conclusive against it.

It argues that even after the limitation time has elapsed, the doctrine of laches only falls into force when it is shown that there is a legitimate cause to invoke it as there will be several cases where plaintiffs have fraudulent intentions in bringing the case late before the courts, which should not be acceptable behaviour, so a thorough fact check should be done by the courts[6].

IV. The Objective of Doctrine of Laches

A court of law may be enforced to prescribe time under existing privileges. It means a span of time determined by this doctrine or this act to uphold the court’s current right. For the time limit set by the doctrine for the appeal. As provided for in the schedule of the Restriction Act 1963, the Act states that the key points on which the Act is restricted are whether it applies to accounts, contracts, wrongs or to immovable property.

The object of this act is based on the intoret republice ut sit jinis uitium principle. This maxim is in the state’s interest, which means that it is important to provide an end to this lawsuit. A constraint, for case filing, a specified period must be prescribed. The goal of this theory is based on the principle, the right is to provide for state, the state allows a finite amount of time for a lawsuit to be filed after the expiration of the specified term.

V. Elements of Doctrine of Laches

The Supreme Court in the case of, U.P. Jal Nigam & Anr. v. Jaswant Singh & Anr., the ground rules for the consideration of this doctrine were set down very clearly and they were as follows:

“Acquiescence on the petitioner’s part.”

“Any change of position that has occurred on the respondent’s part.”

These two points were cited from the Halsbury’s Laws of England in the verdict. The word Acquiescence is used here in a similar sense, meaning not to take any action when one’s right is being violated, but to give consent after the infringement has been done and the petitioner is conscious of the completion.

The intent behind this doctrine is not to provide any relief to a person who has clarified by his actions (by displaying disinterest in claiming his rights within a fair amount of time) that he has waived his right to claim; or if the defendant has been put in such a position by his conduct and negligent behaviour that it has jeopardised his case and if a remedy was to be claimed in the future, it Holding all this in mind, the court held that in such cases, the lapse of time and delay bear utmost significance, and the theory of Laches rests on these aims.

Often one can get confused between the Limitation Period defined in the Limitation Act and Laches as the goal of all these items is to preserve any order in a time-bound way to put cases before the court. Nevertheless, all these meanings are very distinct. As we can see, the Restriction Act is only concerned with the delay in the litigant’s method of filing the lawsuit, while Laches is concerned not only with the delay but also with the cause or justification for the delay.

It is not appropriate for the restriction time and the laches period to overlap. The only thing to be considered is that the delay is not unfair and is not prejudicial to the criminal or the opposite party (even though it is past the limitation period). We will also see that the Restriction Act takes an objective view of the situation only and determines accordingly, while laches take a subjective view of the situation and decide accordingly[7].

All this summing up, we may conclude that the key determinants of laches are:

  1. A delay in filing the claim by the litigant,
  2. Which is unreasonable, and
  3. Was prejudicial to the defendant.

VI. Landmark Judgements and Application of the Doctrine

In the exercise of discretionary relief under Article 32 of the Indian Constitution, laughter and disabilities are essential considerations to be addressed. The related issues that might emerge for consideration in the form of laches vis-a-vis writ petitions under art.32 are:

  1. If the Supreme Court can place any time limit on petitions filed under Art.32;
  2. If the provisions curtailed in the Indian Restriction Act will extend to the Supreme Court in compliance with the facts or some other restriction.

This issue came up for judicial scrutiny for the first time in Tilokchand Motichand v. H.B Munshi [8], In the actual situation, the sales tax collector assistant issued the rebate of a certain amount of sales tax collected by the petitioners in order for the reimbursement to be transferred to the consumers and certificates to be generated before the officer. However, the provision was not met by the petitioner and the balance was then forfeited to the state under 21(4) of the Bombay Sales Tax Act, 1953.

On the basis that forfeiture was without jurisdiction and violated Article 19(1)(g) & 265 of the Constitution, the petitioners contested the decree of forfeiture under Article 226 of the Constitution. The written request, however, was rejected. The petitioners have not appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

However, in Kantilal Babulal & Brothers v. H.C Patel, the Supreme Court held that the validity of section 21(4) of the Bombay Sales Tax Act, 1953 was thrown in jeopardy and that the section did not carry out any process to assess if the dealer involved had genuinely received any amount from the customers. Following the illegal declaration of the petitioners in the case of Tilokchand in 1968, the petitioners of Tilokchand filed a writ petition under Article 32 for the annulment of the order of forfeiture passed in 1958[9].

In the present case, the key question before the SC was whether any limitation time could be defined for written petitions pursuant to Art.32. The court dismissed the appeal by a vote. The problem, however, resulted in sharp differences of opinion between the judges who made up the bench.

Chief Justice Hidayatullah considered that the Supreme Court and the High Court could not, by applying the law of limitation, refuse relief under Articles 32 & 226. A flexible strategy should be taken by the court and the evidence of each case examined to see whether laches could disqualify the allegation or not. In his words:

In an appropriate situation, even after a lapse of time, the court may enter a petition, so it will all rely on the violation of constitutional right & the redress claimed & how the delay occurred.

The Chief Justice believed in the present case that the petitioners were guilty of laches that disentitled them to the relief. There was no matter of error of law on the part of the petitioners because the solution should have been appealed to the SC and should thus not be entitled to take advantage of the later ruling of the Supreme Court favourable to them.

Article 32 reserves the freedom to be approached by a judge, although this does not limit the decision of the court to provide relief. In the case of Laches, one of the aspects important to the exercise of such discretion.

In Ravindra Jain v. UOI, the Supreme Court held that the relief under Art.32 could be rejected on grounds of excessive delay. In addition, there was no argument to overrule the above-mentioned decision by any order of the Supreme Court.[10].

VII. Critical Analysis

It is now well known that the advent of the laches doctrine has kept the aggrieved parties on their toes as they claim compensation and they realise that being oblivious to the rights they can request can lead them to forfeit their right to seek redress forever. Nevertheless, the fact remains that much of India’s population is still ignorant of their rights and obligations with respect to the pause in asserting their rights. Over the years, the implementation of this doctrine has nonetheless opened the way for a system that has compensated citizens that are diligent regarding their rights while penalising others that cause an unjustified pause.

Over the years, the courts have established certain rules to decide whether or not the delay should be forgiven. Both restriction and laches are protected by these rules and have been reiterated in numerous cases, including Collector v. Mst. Khatji and Ors, in which the court stated:

  1. In ordinary circumstances, by approaching the Court late, the litigant does not benefit.
  2. A meritorious matter can sometimes be thrown out due to delay, but it may defeat the purpose of justice and that must be taken into account.
  3. The delay determination doctrine must not be exercised in a pedantic way, but in a rational and pragmatic way.
  4. Substantive justice over technical considerations should prevail.
  5. As such a delay hurts the litigant more than anyone else, there is no presumption that the delay is intentional.

As these rights guaranteed by the Constitution are fundamental and inalienable, the Doctrine of Laches gains more importance with regard to fundamental rights. Therefore it would be safe to say that the Laches Doctrine is a watchdog of justice in a legal system that ensures that only the right cases are dealt with and that due reprimand is properly dealt with for any malice or unnecessary delay.

It can therefore be concluded that the Doctrine of Laches has loosened the traceability of the burden of proof on the plaintiff over the years of its evolution, streamlining the process of evaluating their intent throughout the process, giving a clearer understanding of the case to be dealt with.

This prima doctrine prima facily seems to be an easy defence for the defendants to raise in trying to evade their responsibility from any charges or allegations brought against them but the confusion it involves by vesting too much power in the hands of the court generates incredulity about its prolificity.

This doctrine’s inherent feature relies heavily on the trial judge’s intellect and good faith. It is not difficult to see how discretionary errors could occur when laches are applied. If the law requires the judge sitting in equity to determine whether the delay of a plaintiff in bringing the lawsuit was unreasonable, there will undeniably be a conflict of views as to what constitutes an unreasonable delay.

Should a person with chronic disease devitalizing, but a sound mind be excused for failing to bring a lawsuit; or should a person who has been misled by a third party to believe that he has no cause of action be allowed when he finally comes to file a lawsuit, or would the delay be considered unreasonable?

What needs to be considered is the possibility of exact issues arising and being incorrectly decided. Because very discretionary laches also fails us at times when judicial wisdom and good faith fail us, which they sometimes do. However, it is often noted in its work that laches approach triumph to the administrators but not necessarily to communities.

VIII. Conclusion

It is undoubtedly accepted that by crusading for vigilance and reprimanding those who did not comply with it the Doctrine of Laches played a crucial role in maintaining equity in the judicial system. The lack of awareness and education concerning the exercise of legal rights in India, however, poses a threat to the theoretical application of Laches in the legislation. Nevertheless, in numerous cases, the application of this doctrine by numerous judges has shaped and constructed the principles of this doctrine to suit contemporary needs, keeping in mind the nuances we face today.

It is important to reiterate, when looking at constitutional rights, that no time limit can be set on wrongs committed against constitutional rights, as these are the values and principles on which the whole nation is based. It would simply set a wrong precedent by limiting these wrongs based on time, with many wrongs committed being allowed to get away with. The implementation of this doctrine is therefore uncodified as it enables the judge to take decisions on the limitation of cases on the basis of the circumstances surrounding the case. Laches’s application also helps to filter.

As courts often are inundated with superfluous cases it is possible to hinder the ability of the authorities to give due consideration to cases holding substantive value, interfering once again with the principle of equity. Therefore it would be fair to assume that the Laches Doctrine is a watchdog of justice in a judicial framework that guarantees that only the best cases are dealt with and that due reprimand is duly dealt with for any malice or undue delay.

It can therefore be deduced that the Doctrine of Laches has lessened the tracing of the burden of proof on the plaintiff over the years of its evolution, simplifying the process of assessing his/her intent throughout the process, giving a clearer picture of the case to be dealt with.


[1] Stone v. Williams, 873 F.2d 620, 623 (2d Cir.), Available Here

[2] Harrison v. Gibson (1873) 23 Gratt. 212.

[3] Columbia Law Review, Vol. 6, No. 8 (Dec. 1906), pp. 578-579.

[4] Gunton v. Carroll (1879) 101 U.S. 426

[5] Bassett v. Company (1867) 47 N.H. 426.

[6] Columbia Law Review, Vol. 6, No. 8 (Dec. 1906), pp. 578-579.

[7] U.P. Jal Nigam & Anr. v. Jaswant Singh & Anr., (2006) 11 SCC 464.

[8] Tilokchand Motichand & Ors vs H.B. Munshi & Anr, 1970 AIR 898

[9] Kantilal Babulal And Bros. v. H.C. Patel, Sales Tax Officer, 1965 16 STC 973 Guj

[10] Ravindra Jain v. UOI, W.P.(C) 6912/2014 & CM 16292/2014

  1. Constitutional Law; Notes, Case Laws And Study Material
Updated On 5 Dec 2020 12:48 AM GMT
Vatsala Sood

Vatsala Sood

Student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune

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