[Advocate's Diary] Essentials of a Civil Suit: Plaint, Written Statement and the importance of comprehensive pleadings

Advocate's Diary is a project aimed at addressing the dearth of literature on court practice and litigation advocacy.
Advocate's Diary
Advocate's Diary

Advocate's Diary is a project aimed at addressing the dearth of literature on court practice and litigation advocacy. To this end, we aim to create a repository of columns on the essentials of court practice – ranging from civil suits to criminal trials, from ADR procedures to enforcement of decrees and judgments, and more.

The guest columns in the series aim to develop a conversation channel with seasoned practitioners, senior advocates, arbitrators and judges.

Our previous columns in the Advocate’s Diary series have covered the stage of a civil suit which leads to the topic on focus in the present one – the filing of substantive pleadings, which contains the details of the case that has brought the parties to the doors of a civil court.

In this column, we aim to encapsulate the essentials of pleadings in a civil suit – with a specific focus on plaints and written statements, and landmark decisions of the Supreme Court and High Courts discussing their relevance.

Given the limited scope of a civil court to adjudicate the dispute that the parties present to it, the importance of comprehensive and detailed pleadings becomes all the more accentuated to ensure that the aggrieved party is able to secure the relief it wants from its suit.

In this column, we first lay down the law on pleadings simpliciter and the provisions of the Civil Procedure Code 1908 (CPC) governing pleadings; second, we specifically focus on the intricacies of a plaint and a written statement; and third, we look at the changes brought to pleadings by the Commercial Courts Act, 2015.

I. Pleadings

Broad overview

A pleading is defined under Order VI Rule 1 of the CPC as a plaint or written statement. The object of any pleading is to ensure that the relief sought by a plaintiff are clearly spelt out, and are supported by appropriate factual averments. Each pleading must be tailored to provide the other side with the intimation of what your pleaded case is, so that they can respond to such claims and relief sought specifically. Moreover, a pleading is the opportunity for the Court to fully understand what the core issues are between the parties which need to be adjudicated. This was succinctly summarized in Bachhaj Nahar v. Nilima Mandal, where the Supreme Court observed that:

 “The object and purpose of pleadings and issues is to ensure that the litigants come to trial with all issues clearly defined and to prevent cases being expanded or grounds being shifted during trial.”

In Bacchaj Nihar, and a number of subsequent decisions, the Supreme Court laid down the golden rule of pleadings – that in the absence of a specific prayer and pleadings in support of the prayed for relief, a civil court will be remiss to grant such relief to the plaintiff, since it will lead to a miscarriage of justice for the defendant. The rationale behind such an interpretation on the specificity of pleadings is the importance of giving the defendant a fair and equal chance of refuting the plaintiff’s case. If the plaintiff fails to disclose a crucial fact, or claim a certain relief without having any supporting pleadings in its plaint, the defendant would be deprived of that opportunity.

However, the court is also rooted in the reality of the prevailing social circumstances in which many parties are compelled to file civil suits seeking relief. It is this empathy which led to courts adopting a more liberal approach in assessing procedural compliance of a pleading, and give way to the rule of liberal construction. The rule of liberal construction essentially states that pleadings should be construed liberally, as long as the court can ensure that no prejudice is caused to the other side as a result of such interpretation

This view was further elaborated in Kedar Lal v. Hari Lal, where the Supreme Court held that a civil court should be slow to throw out a claim on a mere technicality of pleading when it contains the relevant substantive averments, and where allowing such a pleading will not cause any prejudice to the other side. It also clarified that it was always open to a court to give a plaintiff such general or other relief as it deemed fit, which would be to a limited extent, provided that it did not cause any prejudice to the other side beyond what can be compensated for in costs.

Essentials of pleadings

A pleading should (a) state material facts and not the evidence on which the party seeks to rely on, (b) state such facts in a concise form, and (c) provide all particulars where they are required.

These conditions are contained in Order VI Rule 2 of the CPC, and the requirement to state all material facts has time and again been emphasized by the Supreme Court. For instance, in Udhav Singh v Madhav Rao Scindia, it was clarified that all the primary facts which must be proved at the trial by a party to establish the existence of a cause of action or his defence, are material facts. Courts have also made it clear on previous occasions that a pleading does not need to contain legal arguments or contentions – but only contain the relevant and material factual averments which give rise to a legal right in favour of the plaintiff, or create a legal duty on the defendant which is alleged to have been breached.

The duty to disclose all material facts during pleadings is crucial though, since a court will not allow a party to lead evidence on a particular fact if it has failed to include it in its pleading. Furthermore, the failure to disclose material facts can even attract the grave consequence of the suit being dismissed in its entirety, making the observations of the Supreme Court in Virender Nath v. Satpal Singh pivotal:

“...it is however absolutely essential that all basic and primary facts which must be proved at the trial by the party to establish existence of a cause of action or defence are material facts and must be stated in the pleadings by the party.”

It is also a general rule that the pleadings should contain only facts which are required to be proved (facta probanda) and not the facts by means of which they are to be proved (facta probantia). In other words, pleadings should contain a statement of material facts on which the party relies upon, but not the evidence by which those facts are to be proved. [Borrodaile v Hunter]

Order VI Rule 6 of the CPC further requires a party to provide any condition precedent which is needed to be fulfilled before a particular relief can be sought before, and ultimately granted by the civil court. Rule 9 also requires that the description and effect of the documents which the party seeks to rely upon needs to be stated in the pleading (which later aids the party as well as the court during the marking of such documents into evidence). The requirement for the pleadings to be in a concise form are further developed by the conditions laid down in Order VI Rule 2, which states that each allegation must be contained in a separate paragraph, ensuring that the pleading is easily readable and understandable.

Any pleading that is to be filed in court is required to be signed by both the party and the pleader on behalf of the party, as per Rules 14 and 15 of Order VI. A pleading will also require an affidavit in support of the averments made and the documents submitted, which is filed in the name of the contesting party. This affidavit is replaced by a Statement of Truth under the Commercial Courts Act – which also requires a verification to be submitted along with any pleading under the amended Order VI Rule 15A.

However, each civil court also has specific procedural directions and rules which are to be complied with for any pleading to be filed in such court. For original civil suits at the Delhi High Court, the appropriate rules to be followed are contained in the Delhi High Court (Original Side) Rules 2018. For civil courts in Karnataka, the Karnataka Rules of Civil Practice 1967 contains the appropriate regulations and guidelines for the filing of pleadings, applications etc.

II. Plaint

The plaintiff, who is the dominus litis of a civil suit, has the burden of complying with the requirements of Order VII Rule 1 of the CPC, which contains the essentials of a plaint. Apart from the requirements of ensuring the correct and accurate details of the parties and the court before which the suit is instituted, the plaintiff is also required to ensure that it states:

- The facts which constitute the cause of action in the suit and when such cause of action arose;

- The facts which establish that the civil court has jurisdiction over the dispute;

- Statement containing the value of the subject-matter of the suit, so as to ascertain pecuniary jurisdiction and court fee;

- Statement that the suit is filed within limitation;

- Reliefs which have been claimed by the plaintiff.

The requirements contained in Order VII Rule 1 are extremely salient, since Rules 10 and 11 also provide for powers of the civil court to return the plaint altogether if it doesn’t have jurisdiction, or to reject it for non-compliance with the mandatory procedural requirements. While requirements such as filing the suit against the necessary and proper party (Order I CPC) and to execute a vakalatnama in favour of the pleader whom the plaintiff wishes to engage (Order III) are fairly well-known, and relatively straightforward to comply with, other requirements often crop up on the basis of the nature of the suit, or on the party against whom it is filed. Two illustrative examples are as follows:

- Order VII Rule 2 applies specifically for money suits, where the plaintiff is required to precisely state the amounts in dispute and which it seeks to recover from the defendant. Rule 3 applies specifically for suits concerning immovable property (partition, dispossession, sale etc), where the plaintiff must necessarily provide the description of the property which is sufficient to identify the same.

- In a suit against a public officer, government department or agency, the plaintiff must serve a notice on such public officer under Section 80 of the CPC and can only institute a suit against such public officer two months after the expiry of the service of notice.

Changes brought by the Commercial Courts Act 2015

In the Commercial Courts Act 2015, with the insertion of Rule 2 (A) in Order VII, important changes have been incorporated into the regime of claiming interest on the claims raised in a civil/commercial suit. It provides that:

  1. Where the plaintiff seeks interest, the plaint shall contain a statement to that effect;

  2. Where the plaintiff seeks interest, the plaint shall state whether the plaintiff is seeking interest in relation to a commercial transaction within the meaning of Section 34 of the CPC. If the plaintiff is doing so under the terms of a contract or under an Act, such Act is to be specified in the plaint;

  3. Pleadings shall also state— (a) the rate at which interest is claimed; (b) the date from which it is claimed; (c) the date to which it is calculated; (d) the total amount of interest claimed to the date of calculation; and (e) the daily rate at which interest accrues after that date.

III. Written Statement

Order VIII of CPC contains the essentials of a written statement, which include inter alia:

- Any new facts and averments which establish that the suit is not maintainable, or that the transaction which the plaintiff seeks to prove is void/voidable as a matter of law, and all other averments and grounds of defence as it deems appropriate.

- All averments, including but not limited to: non-disclosure of the cause of action, inappropriate relief sought by the plaintiff, the proposed action being barred by time or law, the suit otherwise being not maintainable, incorrect jurisdiction, and necessary parties not impleaded, plaint not properly signed or verified.

In support of such new facts and averments, the defendant is also required to produce all supporting documents as required before the civil court as per Order VIII Rule 1. Each averment made by the plaintiff in its plaint must be specifically and categorically denied by the defendant in its written statement, as provided under Order VIII Rule 3. An evasive and non-specific denial is not permissible as per Rule 4 of Order VIII, and can even allow the civil court to admit the plaintiff’s averments at face value, since such averments have not been denied appropriately by the defendant.

Time period for filing of written statement: Important developments post the introduction of the Commercial Courts Act

A written statement must be filled within 30 days from the date of service of summons on the defendant, a time period which is extendable by another 90 days as per Order VIII Rule 1. However, upon the expiry of 120 days from the service of summons, the defendant’s right to file a written statement expires and the court is even empowered to pass judgment against the defendant under Rule 10 of Order VIII.

The power of a court to extend the defendant’s right to file a written statement is often exercised with considerable discretion, since the right to file a written statement is a salient procedural right that has serious consequences to its ability to defend itself in the suit filed by the plaintiff.

This was echoed by the Supreme Court in its 2005 decision in Kailash v Nankhu, where it was held that the requirements under Order VIII Rule 1 were merely directory and the Court could exercise its power to extend the time period as per law, and use its inherent powers to meet the ends of justice under Section 151 of the CPC.

After the advent of the Commercial Courts Act 2015, a proviso has been added to Rule 1 of Order VIII, wherein the time period to file written statement is increased from 30 days to 120 days. The section now provides 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 120 days from the date of service of summons. On expiry of 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 same to be taken on record.

While this amendment made the time period to file the written statement a lot stricter and was implemented in commercial suits across the country strictly, the Gujarat High Court doubted the correctness of this strict approach in Kalpataru Projects v SSA Projects Pvt. Ltd. In Kalpataru Projects, the Gujarat High Court held that courts must be cognizant of exceptional circumstances faced by parties, which might have prevented them from filing a written statement within the prescribed time limit as per the amended Order VIII Rule 1, and should take a lenient and party-centric view.

Our next columns in this series will focus on additional pleadings, such as counter-claims, rejoinders and amendments to main pleadings. We will also look into the judicial tests surrounding return and rejection of plaints under Order VII Rules 10 and 11 of the CPC. 

Tanvi Dubey is an independent practitioner at the Supreme Court of India, with a diverse practice ranging from civil, commercial and constitutional disputes to service matters before the Supreme Court and other fora in Delhi.

Sumit Chatterjee is a civil and commercial dispute resolution lawyer at Arista Chambers, practicing before the Karnataka High Court, trial courts and a wide array of tribunals in Bangalore.

The authors would like to acknowledge the efforts of Harshit Jindal (fourth year student at NLSIU) and Archit Sinha (third year student at NLSIU) for their research assistance for the second, third and fourth columns of Advocate's Diary.

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