In the event of ambiguity in an exemption notification, should the benefit of such ambiguity go to the subject/assessee or should such ambiguity should be construed in favour of the revenue, denying the benefit of exemption to the subject/assessee? There are catena of case laws in this area of interpretation of an exemption notification, which we need to consider herein. The case of Commissioner of Inland Revenue vs. James Forrest, [(1890) 15 AC 334 (HL)] – is a case which does not discuss the interpretative test to be applied to exemption clauses in a taxation statute – however, it was observed that ‘it would be unreasonable to suppose that an exemption was wide as practicable to make the tax inoperative, that it cannot be assumed to have been in the mind of the Legislature’ and that exemption ‘from taxation to some extent increased the burden on other members of the community’. Though this is a dissenting view of Lord Halsbury, LC, in subsequent decisions this has been quoted vividly to support the conclusion that any vagueness in the exemption clauses must go to the benefit of the revenue. Be that as it is, in our country, at least from 1955, there appears to be a consistent view that if the words in a taxing statute (not exemption clause) are ambiguous and open to two interpretations, the benefit of interpretation is given to the subject and it does not matter if the taxpayer escapes the tax net on account of Legislatures’ failure to express itself clearly (See the passage extracted hereinabove from Kesoram Industries Case (supra)).
29.The first case with which we need to concern ourselves is the case in Union of India v. The Commercial TaxOfficer, West Bengal and Ors., AIR 1956 SC 202. It may be noted that this case was dealt with by five learned Judges of this Court resulting in two different opinions; one by the then Chief Justice of India, S.R. Das for the majority, and Justice B.P. Sinha (as His Lordship then was) rendering minority view. The question before this Court was whether the sale of goods made by one private mill to the Government of India, Ministry of Industries and Supplies were to be deducted as taxable turnover of the mill for the exemption given under Section 5 of the Bengal Finance (Sales Tax) Act, 1941 (Bengal Act VI of 1941). The exemption under Section 5(2)(a)(iii) of the Bengal Finance (Sales Tax) Act, 1941 provided for exemption ‘to sales to the Indian Stores Department, the Supply Department of the Government of India, and any railway or water transport administration’. The Court was to interpret the aforesaid provision in order to ascertain whether the sale to the Government of India, Ministry of Industries and Supplies would be covered under the Section.
30.The majority was of the view that the Government of India, Ministry of Industries and Supplies was not similar to those mentioned in the exemption notification. The majority extensively relied on the history and origin of Ministry of Industries and Supplies and concluded that the functions of the aforesaid Ministry were different from the erstwhile departments mentioned under the exemption provision. The majority reasoned that the exemption being the creation of the statute itself, it should have to be construed strictly and the interpretation cannot be extended to sales to other departments. We might find some clue as to the content of a strict construction also. It was canvassed before the Court that the object of Section 5(2)(a)(iii) of the relevant statute, was to give exemption not to the particular departments but to the sale of such goods to those departments and, therefore, sale of those goods made to any Departments of the Government of India, which came to be charged with the duty of purchasing those goods should also come within the purview of the exemption. The Court while repelling the aforesaid interpretation, reasoned as under:
“We are unable to accept this line of reasoning. This interpretation will unduly narrow the scope and ambit of the exemption by limiting it to sales of only those goods as, at the date of the Act, used to be sold to those two departments and sales of other goods even to those two departments, however necessary for the prosecution of the war, would not get benefit of the exemption. Such could not possibly be the intention of the Legislature as expressed by the language used by it in framing the Section.”
31.The aforesaid placitum is suggestive of the fact that the Courts utilized the rule of strict interpretation in order to decipher the intention of the Legislature and thereafter provide appropriate interpretation for the exemption provided under the provisions of the Act which was neither too narrow nor too broad. It may be noted that the majority did not take a narrow view as to what strict interpretation would literally mean; rather they combined legislative intent to ascertain the meaning of the statute in accordance with the objective intent of the Legislature.
32.On the contrary, the minority opinion of Justice B.P. Sinha (as His Lordship then was) provided a purposive interpretation for Section 5(2)(a)(iii) of the Act, which is clear from the following passage:
“The judgment under appeal is based chiefly on the consideration that the exemption clause in question does not in terms refer to the newly created department which now goes by the name of the Ministry of Industry and Supply.
But this department in so far as it deals with industry, is not concerned with the main purchasing activities of the Government of India. The exemption was granted in respect of the purchasing activity of the Government of India and that function continues to be assigned to the Supply Department which has now become a wing of the newly created department of the Government. The question therefore arises whether in those circumstances the Government of India could claim the benefit of the exemption.
The High Court in answering that question in the negative has gone upon mere nomenclature. It has emphasized the change in the name and overlooked the substance of the matter.”
33.The minority construed ‘strict interpretation’ to be an interpretation wherein least number of “determinates in terms of quantity” would fall under the exemption. The minority referred to an old English case of Commissioner of Inland Revenue v. James Forrest, (1890) 15 AC 334. It may be relevant to note that the minority could not find the justification to apply strict interpretation as the exemption notification was broad enough to include exemptions for commodities purchased by the Government of India. The Court was of the opinion that the strict interpretation provided by the majority was uncalled for as there was no additional burden on others by giving such exemptions. The relevant observations are as follows“
The High Court referred to the observations of Lord Halsbury in the case of Commissioner of Inland Revenue v. James Forrest (1890) 15 AC 334, to the effect that exemptions from taxation should be strictly construed because otherwise the burden of taxation will fall on other members of the community. Those observations, in my opinion, have no relevance to the facts and circumstances of the present controversy, because we know that the exemption was granted to the Government of India in the department dealing with purchase of certain commodities and articles without reference to quantity. As already pointed out, the Indian Stores Department was concerned with purchase of stores for public services on behalf of all Central Departments of Government and local Government, etc., and the Government of Bengal as then constituted was one of the provinces of India which have been receiving subsidies and subventions to make up the deficit in their budgets. As a matter of fact, as stated on behalf of the Bengal Government the concession was granted in order to enable business communities within the province of Bengal to compete on favourable terms with others outside Bengal in the matter of supplying the needs of the Government.
Hence, there is no question of liberal construction of the exemption resulting in throwing a greater burden on other citizens. On the other hand, the larger the sales in the province of Bengal as it used to be, the greater the benefit to the business community doing business within that province. It was therefore stated at the Bar that though the present case involved taxes amounting to less than Rs.10,000, the question arising for determination in this case affected much larger amounts because such sales within the province amounted to several crores. I should have thought that the business community in the province of Bengal having had the advantage of the transactions of sale, the Government of Bengal in all fairness should have allowed the purchasing agency of the Government of India the benefit of the exemption until that benefit was in terms withdrawn sometimes in the beginning of 1949.”
34. In Hansraj Gordhandas v. H.H. Dave, Asst. Collector of Central Excise & Customs, Surat and Ors., AIR 1970 SC 755 = (1969) 2 SCR 253 [hereinafter referred as ‘Hansraj Gordhandas Case’ for brevity], wherein this Court was called upon to interpret an exemption notification issued under the Central Excise Act. It would be relevant to understand the factual context which gave rise to the aforesaid case before the Court.
The appellant was sole proprietor who used to procure cotton from a cooperative society during the relevant period. The society had agreed to carry out the weaving work for the appellant on payment of fixed weaving charges at Re.0.19 np. per yard which included expenses the society would have to incur in transporting the aforesaid cotton fabric. In the years 1959 and 1960, the Government issued an exemption notification which exempted cotton fabrics produced by any cooperative society formed of owners of cotton power looms, registered on or before 31st March, 1961. The question before the Court was whether the appellant who got the cotton fabric produced from one of the registered cooperative society was also covered under the aforesaid notification. It may be of some significance that the revenue tried to interpret the aforesaid exemption by relying on the purposive interpretation by contending that the object of granting the above exemption was to encourage the formation of cooperative societies which not only produced cotton fabrics but also consisted of members, not only owning but having actually operated not more than four power looms during the three years immediately preceding their having joined the society.
The policy was that instead of each such member operating his looms on his own, he should combine with others by forming a society to produce clothes. It was argued that the goods produced for which exemption could be claimed must be goods produced on his own and on behalf by the society. The court did not countenance such purposive interpretation. It was held that a taxing legislation should be interpreted wholly by the language of the notification. The relevant observations are:
“It is well established that in a taxing statute there is no room for any intendment but regard must be had to the clear meaning of the words. The entire matter is governed wholly by the language of the notification. If the taxpayer is within the plain terms of the exemption it cannot be denied its benefit by calling in aid any supposed intention of the exempting authority. If such intention can be gathered from the construction of the words of the notification or by necessary implication therefrom, the matter is different, but that is not the case here. In this connection we may refer to the observations of Lord Watson in Salomon vs. Salomon & Co., (1897) AC 22):
‘Intention of the Legislature is a common but very slippery phrase, which, popularly understood may signify anything from intention embodied in positive enactment to speculative opinion as to what the legislature probably would have meant, although there has been an omission to enact it. In a Court of Law or Equity, what the Legislature intended to be done or not to be done can only be legitimately ascertained from that which it has chosen to enact, either in express words or by reasonable and necessary implication.’
It is an application of this principle that a statutory notification may not be extended so as to meet a casus omissus. As appears in the judgment of the Privy Council in Crawford v. Spooner.
‘… we cannot aid the Legislature’s defective phrasing of the Act, we cannot add, and mend, and, by construction, make up deficiencies which are left there.’ Learned Counsel for the respondents is possibly right in his submission that the object behind the two notifications is to encourage the actual manufacturers of handloom cloth to switch over to power looms by constituting themselves in cooperative Societies. But the operation of the notifications has to be judged not by the object which the rule making authority had in mind but by the words which it has employed to effectuate the legislative intent.”
35. In the judgment of two learned Judges in Union of India v. Wood Papers Limited, (1990) 4 SCC 256 [hereinafter referred as ‘Wood Papers Ltd. Case’ for brevity], a distinction between stage of finding out the eligibility to seek exemption and stage of applying the nature of exemption was made. Relying on the decision in Collector of Central Excise vs. Parle Exports (P) Ltd., (1989) 1 SCC 345, it was held “Do not extend or widen the ambit at the stage of applicability. But once that hurdle is crossed, construe it liberally”. The reasoning for arriving at such conclusion is found in para 4 of Wood Papers Ltd. Case (supra), which reads“…
Literally exemption is freedom from liability, tax or duty. Fiscally, it may assume varying shapes, specially, in a growing economy. For instance tax holiday to new units, concessional rate of tax to goods or persons for limited period or with the specific objective etc. That is why its construction, unlike charging provision, has to be tested on different touchstone. In fact, an exemption provision is like an exception and on normal principle of construction or interpretation of statutes it is construed strictly either because of legislative intention or on economic justification of inequitable burden or progressive approach of fiscal provisions intended to augment State revenue. But once exception or exemption becomes applicable no rule or principles requires it to be construed strictly. Truly speaking liberal and strict construction of an exemption provision are to be invoked at different stages of interpreting it.
When the question is whether a subject falls in the notification or in the exemption clause then it being in nature of exception is to be construed strictly and against the subject, but once ambiguity or doubt about applicability is lifted and the subject falls in the notification then full play should be given to it and it calls for a wider and liberal construction…” (emphasis supplied)
36. In Mangalore Chemicals & Fertilizers Ltd. vs. Dy. Commissioner of Commercial Taxes, (1992) Supp. 1 SCC 21 [hereinafter referred as ‘Mangalore Chemicals Case’ for brevity], the facts of the case were that the State Government issued a notification in exercise of power under Section 8A of the Karnataka Sales Tax Act, 1957, providing certain incentives to entrepreneurs starting new industries in the State pursuant to State’s policy for “rapid industrialization”. The notification contains a package of reliefs and incentives including one concerning relief from payment of sales tax with which the case was concerned. There was no dispute that the appellant was entitled to the benefit of the Notification dated June 30, 1969. There was also no dispute that the refunds were eligible to be adjusted against sales tax payable for respective years. The only controversy was whether the appellant, not having actually secured the “prior permission” would be entitled to adjustment having regard to the words of the Notification of August 11, 1975, that “until permission of renewal is granted by the Deputy Commissioner of Commercial Taxes, the new industry should not be allowed to adjust the refunds”. The contention of the appellants therein was that the permission for the three years had been sought well before the commencement of the respective years but had been withheld for reasons which were demonstrably extraneous. Therefore, contention was that if, in these circumstances, the Deputy Commissioner could withold the permission.
37.This Court while accepting the interpretation provided by the appellant, observed on the aspect of strict construction of a provision concerning exemptions as follows:
“… There is support of judicial opinion to the view that exemptions from taxation have a tendency to increase the burden on the other unexempted class of tax payers and should be construed against the subject in case of ambiguity. It is an equally well known principle that a person who claims an exemption has to establish his case.
… The choice between a strict and a liberal construction arises only in case of doubt in regard to the intention of the legislature manifest on the statutory language. Indeed, the need to resort to any interpretative process arises only where the meaning is not manifest on the plain words of the statute. If the words are plain and clear and directly convey the meaning, there is no need for any interpretation. It appears to us the true rule of construction of a provision as to exemption is the one stated by this Court in Union of India v. Wood Papers Ltd. [(1990) 4 SCC 256 = 1990 SCC (Tax) 422 = JT (1991) SC 151]”
Three important aspects which comes out of the discussion are the recognition of horizontal equity by this court as a consideration for application of strict interpretation, subjugation of strict interpretation to the plain meaning rule and interpretation in favour of exclusion in light of ambiguity.
38.We will now consider another Constitution Bench decision in Commissioner of Central Excise, New Delhi v. Hari Chand Shri Gopal, (2011) 1 SCC 236 [hereinafter referred as ‘Hari Chand Case’ for brevity].
We need not refer to the facts of the case which gave rise to the questions for consideration before the Constitutional Bench. K.S. Radhakrishnan, J., who wrote the unanimous opinion for the Constitution Bench, framed the question, viz., whether manufacturer of a specified final product falling under Schedule to the Central Excise Tariff Act, 1985 is eligible to get the benefit of exemption of remission of excise duty on specified intermediate goods as per the Central Government Notification dated 11.08.1994, if captively consumed for the manufacture of final product on the ground that the records kept by it at the recipient end would indicate its “intended use” and “substantial compliance” with procedure set out in Chapter 10 of the Central Excise Rules, 1994, for consideration? The Constitution Bench answering the said question concluded that a manufacturer qualified to seek exemption was required to comply with the preconditions for claiming exemption and therefore is not exempt or absolved from following the statutory requirements as contained in the Rules. The Constitution Bench then considered and reiterated the settled principles qua the test of construction of exemption clause, the mandatory requirements to be complied with and the distinction between the eligibility criteria with reference to the conditions which need to be strictly complied with and the conditions which need to be substantially complied with. The Constitution Bench followed the ratio in Hansraj Gordhandas Case (supra), to reiterate the law on the aspect of interpretation of exemption clause in para 29 as follows61
“The law is well settled that a person who claims exemption or concession has to establish that he is entitled to that exemption or concession. A provision providing for an exemption, concession or exception, as the case may be, has to be construed strictly with certain exceptions depending upon the settings on which the provision has been placed in the statute and the object and purpose to be achieved. If exemption is available on complying with certain conditions, the conditions have to be complied with. The mandatory requirements of those conditions must be obeyed or fulfilled exactly, thought at times, some latitude can be shown, if there is failure to comply with some requirements which are directory in nature, the noncompliance of which would not affect the essence or substance of the notification granting exemption.”
39.The Constitution Bench then considered the doctrine of substantial compliance and “intended use”. The relevant portions of the observations in paras 31 to 34 are in the following terms –
“31. Of course, some of the provisions of an exemption notification may be directory in nature and some are mandatory in nature.
A distinction between the provisions of a statute which are of substantive character and were built in with certain specific objectives of policy, on the one hand, and those which are merely procedural and technical in there nature, on the other, must be kept clearly distinguished…