"Vigilantibus, non dormentibus, jura subvenient"
(a) Meaning - It is an undisputed axiom that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. If one sleeps upon his rights, his rights will slip away from him and therefore this maxim has been expressed in a rather different form, shouting to the passive, otiose, and the slothful that: "Equity aids the vigilant and not the indolent."
Where an injured party has been slow to demand a remedy for a wrong which he has for a long time regarded with apparent indifference, the court will decline to give him that remedy on grounds of public policy.
Therefore there should be some time-limit for the prosecution of a claim in a court of justice because it is dangerous and impracticable to leave it to the sweet will of a person entitled to it. This idea has been accepted by every legal system and this maxim is an indicator for the time-limit though in a crude form. This maxim applies only when a claim to equitable reliefs.
(b) Application - To cases which are governed by statutes of limitation either expressly or by analogy the maxim will not apply. Such cases fail into three categories:
(i) firstly those equitable claims to which the statute does not apply and
(ii) secondly to the statute applies by an apology.
(iii) In the third instance there are equitable claims to which the statute does not apply and hence they are covered by ordinary rules of laches. But in cases of fraud of the defendant, time against the plaintiff will begin to run only on and from the date when the fraud was first discovered.
Doctrine of laches: Plaintiff's unreasonable delay is a weapon of defence by the defendant against the plaintiff.
Where a long time has elapsed, even beyond the statutes of limitation, and the plaintiff has never insisted upon his rights and therefore neither the statute applies nor can the analogy be invoked, one has to look to the delay and the surrounding circumstance which provide an explanation for the delay and a basis of interference for the court.
If the inference that can be reasonably drawn is that the plaintiff agreed to abandon or release his rights on the reasonable faith that he has done so, the matter is over, because, the plaintiff's claim will be treated as abandoned.
In such cases, the lapse of time and delay are most material. But apart from such circumstances delay will be immaterial. Ignorance of the rights, undue influence, and disability would form a satisfactory explanation for the delay. It should be noted that laches is a personal disqualification and will not blind successors-in-title.
(c) Cases - Where A seeks to set aside a contract of purchase he must apply for relief within the limitation period. But where he makes unreasonable delay and during that time other parties have acquired rights or where the property in question has deteriorated in value or where conditions are changed, the court will refuse rescission.
The class of cases to which the statute is applied by analogy is extremely small and the court normally retains a discretion governed by the doctrine of laches, to refuse or to grant an equitable remedy in aid of a legal right even though the right is subject to an express statutory period which has not expired.
(d) Delay when fatal: In the following three cases delay is fatal for a party desirous of enforcing his right:
(i) As a result of delay when the available evidence is lost or destroyed.
(ii) When the other party is induced to assume or draw an inference from one's conduct that one has waived his rights.
(iii) Delay provides a ground to the other party and leads him to believe that one has agreed to abandon or release his rights.
(e) Limitations or exceptions to the maxim - Delay is not fatal in the following circumstances and they form the exceptions to the maxim so that the maxim does not apply to them-
(i) where the law of limitation expressly applies,
(ii) where it applies by analogy, and
(iii) where the law of limitation does not apply but the cases are governed by ordinary rules of laches.
Similarly where the respondents have neither pleaded nor shown any prejudice caused to them by the alleged time-lag, where the Court has acted without jurisdiction and on the misconception of the question... it cannot be said that the petitioners are guilty of delay or laches in approaching the court for relief.
A claim cannot be rejected merely on the ground of delay or laches. Delay it must be remembered, destroys the remedy but not the right, however, in certain cases it defeats the right as well as remedy.
(f) Laches and acquiescence - Acquiescence is an assent to an infringement of rights, either express or implied from conduct, by which right to equitable relief is normally lost.
It takes place when a person with full knowledge of his own rights and of any acts which infringe them, has, either at the time or after the infringement, by his conduct led the person responsible for the infringement to believe that he has waived or abandoned his rights.
A time-lag that can be explained does not spell laches. Laches is a passive state, while acquiescence connotes active permission or connivance. Therefore such permission by conduct amounts to estoppel or a bar against oneself.
Lapse of time is an important factor in considering whether there has been acquiescence even without any delay. It is to be noted that laches may exist as a defence even in circumstances not amounting to acquiescence, e.g., where the defendant's witnesses have died. The areas of acquiescence and laches thus overlap, yet neither is wholly included in the other.
(g) Recognition in India - The law of limitation may harshly affect a particular party, but it has to be applied with all its rigor when the statute so prescribes and the courts have no power to extend the period of limitation on equitable grounds. Thus equity cannot be the basis for extending the period of limitation.
The doctrine has therefore no general application to India but has only a limited scope. Where there is a long lapse of time in challenging the defendant's title the presumption would be that it had a lawful origin and the court would fill in the details obliterated by time. In the case of costs, laches may be a ground for a refusal.