After pondering this awhile, I have a problem with this, as it’s not one question, but two. And I think that, to answer it, it’s necessary to focus on the words ‘always’ and ‘never’.
To take the second part first: I think that ‘never’ can never be the ‘preferred option,’ as in ‘one that is deliberately chosen’. One could only ever choose the ‘never’ option if the benefits of doing so were to outweigh the benefits of taking the planned action, and, barring a change in circumstances that might negate the original plan, I cannot think of a single example where that might be true.
Missing the launch window
As PCGuyIV points out in his own answer, ‘late’ implies a deadline. If that is time-critical, failing to meet it can make further action towards the goal pointless, or nonsensical.
Take, for instance, a Mars probe: if its launch window is passed and the rocket is still on the launch pad, the mission has to be postponed — for two years or more — or even scrubbed entirely. While this equates with ‘never’, the option is not one that was chosen in advance; the situation has changed. There will, presumably, have been unavoidable reasons for the delay, despite best efforts to achieve the objective.
Altered circumstances after the event
‘Never’ can also appear to be an ‘option’ if new facts come to light that reveal that the failure to meet the deadline has changed — or, even, possibly, improved — the situation, despite initial conditions that may have suggested action was required. But since this implies a faulty analysis, or misunderstanding, of the conditions leading to the original action plan, the ‘never’ option can never be the preferred choice for that original plan. And such should never be used as an excuse to procrastinate, although sometimes this is exactly what does happen….
So, is “better late than never” always true?
My answer to this is a simple ‘no’. As PCGuyIV says, one has to consider the consequences of not meeting the deadline; but since there are some situations in which being too late can have disastrous results, defying rectification by any action (the Titanic comes to mind), the maxim is not always true.
Delaying action on climate change, for example, is something homo fatuus brutus has been doing now for decades. The “we need more information” mantra has been pushed by many, fuelled largely by vested interests and the merchants of doubt with the intention of maintaining business as usual as long as possible, despite the evidence. While the mantra sounds reasonable, what some demand is 100% certainty, which is totally unreasonable (it’s a science denial technique known as ‘impossible expectations’).
Coming up to the tail-end of 2014, I asked a question of my own: “Are we ready for 2015?“. It was, of course, rhetorical; but the CO2 mitigation graph above gives a clear answer that: no, we weren’t ready. And now, six-and-a-half years later, we’re still not.