The Supreme Court has ruled that a person is not barred from claiming exemption from paying court fees before the High Court under Order 44 of the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC), 1908 on account of being an indigent person, merely because such a claim under the corresponding provision of Order 33, CPC was rejected by the Trial Court.
The Division Bench of Justices AM Sapre and Indu Malhotra made the observation while allowing an appeal against a Kerala High Court judgment which had rejected the appellant’s claim for such exemption.
The appellant had initially claimed this exemption claim while initiating a civil suit to recover over Rs 74 crores in 1996 before and Additional Sub-Judge in Thiruvanathapuram. Given the value of his suit, the plaintiff had been expected to pay over Rs 3 lakhs as court fee. He filed the suit under Order 33 of the CPC, which exempts indigent persons from paying court fees that they are unable to afford given their economic status.
However, the respondents/defendants disputed the appellant’s claims of being unable to afford the court fee. The Trial Court, in 1998, rejected the claim that he was an indigent person.
In 2000, the Kerala High Court dismissed the plaintiff’s appeal against the Trial Court’s rejection of his Order 33 suit and directed that he will have to pay the applicable ad valorem court fees for his plaint within a month.
The appellant therefore converted his case into a regular original suit before the Trial Court, and also proceeded to file another related civil suit. After clubbing both suits together, the Trial Court dismissed the plaintiff’s case in 2011.
In appealing against this verdict before the High Court, the appellant again claimed that he would not be able to pay the court fees applicable on his appeal as an indigent person. He submitted that his financial condition had worsened following the Trial Court verdict. Therefore, he claimed that he could not afford the court fee on the appeal. Accordingly, he filed his appeal under Order 44, CPC, which allows exemption from payment of court fees on appeals by indigent persons.
However, the High Court rejected his exemption claim, this time in view of the fact that his earlier claim to file the Order 33 suit had been rejected by the Trial Court and affirmed by the High Court.
The Supreme Court has now clarified that the High Court’s approach in the matter was erroneous. The Bench noted that at every appellate stage the exemption claim is made, the concerned Court will have to independently enquire whether the claimant, on facts, is entitled to be treated as an indigent person and, therefore, be allowed exemption from payment of court fees.
As noted in the judgment,