What are the salient principles of interpretation of statutes

The general principles of interpretation, which were also adverted to 1 See: Sun Export Corporation, Bombay v. Collector of Customs, Bombay and Anr., (1997) 6 SCC 564; Commissioner of Central Excise, Pune v. Abhi Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Pvt. Ltd., (2005) 3 SCC 541; Collector of Central Excise, Bombay1 and Anr. v. Parle Exports (Pvt.) Ltd., (1989) 1 SCC 345; Commissioner of Customs (Import), Mumbai v. Konkan Synthetic Fibres, (2012) 6 SCC 339; Collector of Customs, Bombay v. Swastic Wollens (Pvt.) Ltd. And Ors., (1988) Supp. SCC 796; Commissioner of Customs (Preventive), Gujarat v. Reliance Petroleum Ltd., (2008) 7 SCC 220. by both the counsel. In his treatise, ‘Principles of Statutory Interpretation’ Justice G.P. Singh, lucidly pointed the importance of construction of statutes in a modern State as under:

“Legislation in modern State is actuated with some policy to curb some public evil or to effectuate some public benefit. The legislation is primarily directed to the problems before the Legislature based on information derived from past and present experience. It may also be designed by use of general words to cover similar problems arising in future. But, from the very nature of things, it is impossible to anticipate fully the varied situations arising in future in which the application of the legislation in hand may be called for, and, words chosen to communicate such indefinite ‘referents’ are bound to be, in many cases lacking in clarity and precision and thus giving rise to controversial questions of construction.”

14.An Act of Parliament/Legislature cannot foresee all types of situations and all types of consequences. It is for the Court to see whether a particular case falls within the broad principles of law enacted by the Legislature. Here, the principles of interpretation of statutes come in handy. In spite of the fact that experts in the field assist in drafting the Acts and Rules, there are many occasions where the language used and the phrases employed in the statute are not perfect. Therefore, Judges and Courts need to interpret the words.

15. In doing so, the principles of interpretation have been evolved in common law. It has also been the practice for the appropriate legislative body to enact Interpretation Acts or General Clauses Act. In all the Acts and Regulations, made either by the Parliament or Legislature, the words and phrases as defined in the General Clauses Act and the principles of interpretation laid down in General Clauses Act are to be necessarily kept in view. If while interpreting a Statutory law, any doubt arises as to the meaning to be assigned to a word or a phrase or a clause used in an enactment and such word, phrase or clause is not specifically defined, it is legitimate and indeed mandatory to fall back on General Clauses Act. Notwithstanding this, we should remember that when there is repugnancy or conflict as to the subject or context between the General Clauses Act and a statutory provision which falls for interpretation, the Court must necessarily refer to the provisions of statute.

16.The purpose of interpretation is essentially to know the intention of the Legislature. Whether the Legislature intended to apply the law in a given case; whether the Legislature intended to exclude operation of law in a given case; whether Legislature intended to give discretion to enforcing authority or to adjudicating agency to apply the law, are essentially questions to which answers can be sought only by knowing the intention of the legislation. Apart from the general principles of interpretation of statutes, there are certain internal aids and external aids which are tools for interpreting the statutes.

17.The long title, the preamble, the heading, the marginal note, punctuation, illustrations, definitions or dictionary clause, a proviso to a section, explanation, examples, a schedule to the Act etc., are internal aids to construction. The external aids to construction are Parliamentary debates, history leading to the legislation, other statutes which have a bearing, dictionaries, thesaurus.

18. It is well accepted that a statute must be construed according to the intention of the Legislature and the Courts should act upon the true intention of the legislation while applying law and while interpreting law. If a statutory provision is open to more than one meaning, the Court has to choose the interpretation which represents the intention of the Legislature. In this connection, the following observations made by this Court in District Mining Officer vs. Tata Iron and Steel Co., (2001) 7 SCC 358, may be noticed:

“… A statute is an edict of the Legislature and in construing a statute, it is necessary, to seek the intention of its maker. A statute has to be construed according to the intent of them that make it and the duty of the Court is to act upon the true intention of the Legislature. If a statutory provision is open to more than one interpretation the Court has to choose that interpretation which represents the true intention of the Legislature. This task very often raises the difficulties because of various reasons, inasmuch as the words used may not be scientific symbols having any precise or definite meaning and the language may be an imperfect medium to convey one’s thought or that the assembly of Legislatures consisting of persons of various shades of opinion purport to convey a meaning which may be obscure. It is impossible even for the most imaginative Legislature to forestall exhaustively situations and circumstances that may emerge after enacting a statute where its application may be called for.

Nonetheless, the function of the Courts is only to expound and not to legislate. Legislation in a modern State is actuated with some policy to curb some public evil or to effectuate some public benefit. The legislation is primarily directed to the problems before the Legislature based on information derived from past and present experience. It may also be designed by use of general words to cover similar problems arising in future. But, from the very nature of things, it is impossible to anticipate fully the varied situations arising in future in which the application of the legislation in hand may be called for, and, words chosen to communicate such indefinite referents are bound to be in many cases lacking in clarity and precision and thus giving rise to controversial questions of construction. The process of construction combines both literal and purposive approaches. In other words the legislative intention i.e., the true or legal meaning of an enactment is derived by considering the meaning of the words used in the enactment in the light of any discernible purpose or object which comprehends the mischief and its remedy to which the enactment is directed…”

19.The well settled principle is that when the words in a statute are clear, plain and unambiguous and only one meaning can be inferred, the Courts are bound to give effect to the said meaning irrespective of consequences. If the words in the statute are plain and unambiguous, it becomes necessary to expound those words in their natural and ordinary sense. The words used declare the intention of the Legislature. In Kanai Lal Sur v. Paramnidhi Sadhukhan, AIR 1957 SC 907, it was held that if the words used are capable of one construction only then it would not be open to the Courts to adopt any other hypothetical construction on the ground that such construction is more consistent with the alleged object and policy of the Act.

20. In applying rule of plain meaning any hardship and inconvenience cannot be the basis to alter the meaning to the language employed by the legislation. This is especially so in fiscal statutes and penal statutes. Nevertheless, if the plain language results in absurdity, the Court is entitled to determine the meaning of the word in the context in which it is used keeping in view the legislative purpose (2 Assistant Commissioner, Gadag Sub Division, Gadag v. Mathapathi Basavannewwa, 1995 (6) SCC 355). Not only that, if the plain construction leads to anomaly and absurdity, the court having regard to the hardship and consequences that flow from such a provision can even explain the true intention of the legislation. Having observed general principles applicable to statutory interpretation, it is now time to consider rules of interpretation with respect to taxation.

21. In construing penal statutes and taxation statutes, the Court has to apply strict rule of interpretation. The penal statute which tends to deprive a person of right to life and liberty has to be given strict interpretation or else many innocent might become victims of discretionary decision making. Insofar as taxation statutes are concerned, Article 265 of the Constitution (265. Taxes not to be imposed save by authority of law No tax shall be levied or collected except by authority of law) prohibits the State from extracting tax from the citizens without authority of law. It is axiomatic that taxation statute has to be interpreted strictly because State cannot at their whims and fancies burden the citizens without authority of law. In other words, when competent Legislature mandates taxing certain persons/certain objects in certain circumstances, it cannot be expanded/interpreted to include those, which were not intended by the Legislature.

22.At the outset, we must clarify the position of ‘plain meaning rule or clear and unambiguous rule’ with respect of tax law. ‘The plain meaning rule’ suggests that when the language in the statute is plain and unambiguous, the Court has to read and understand the plain language as such, and there is no scope for any interpretation. This salutary maxim flows from the phrase “cum inverbis nulla ambiguitas est, non debet admitti voluntatis quaestio”. Following such maxim, the courts sometimes have made strict interpretation subordinate to the plain meaning rule4, though strict interpretation is used in the precise sense. To say that strict interpretation involves plain reading of the statute and to say that one has to utilize strict interpretation in the event of ambiguity is selfcontradictory.

23.Next, we may consider the meaning and scope of ‘strict interpretation’, as evolved in Indian law and how the higher Courts have made a distinction while interpreting a taxation statute on one hand and tax exemption notification on the other. In Black’s Law Dictionary (10th Edn.) ‘strict interpretation’ is described as under: Strict interpretation. (16c) 1. An interpretation according to the narrowest, most literal meaning of the words without regard for context and other permissible 4 Mangalore Chemicals Case (Infra para 37). meanings. 2. An interpretation according to what the interpreter narrowly believes to have been the specific intentions or understandings of the text’s authors or ratifiers, and no more.Also termed (in senses 1 & 2) strict construction, literal interpretation; literal construction; restricted interpretation; interpretatio stricta; interpretatio restricta; interpretatio verbalis. 3. The philosophy underlying strict interpretation of statues.Also termed as close interpretation; interpretatio restrictive. See strict constructionism under constructionism. Cf. large interpretation; liberal interpretation (2). “Strict construction of a statute is that which refuses to expand the law by implications or equitable considerations, but confines its operation to cases which are clearly within the letter of the statute, as well as within its spirit or reason, not so as to defeat the manifest purpose of the legislature, but so as to resolve all reasonable doubts against the applicability of the statute to the particular case.’ Willam M. Lile et al., 29 Brief Making and the use of Law Books 343 (Roger W. Cooley & Charles Lesly Ames eds., 3d ed. 1914).

“Strict interpretation is an equivocal expression, for it means either literal or narrow. When a provision is ambiguous, one of its meaning may be wider than the other, and the strict (i.e., narrow) sense is not necessarily the strict (i.e., literal) sense.” John Salmond , Jurisprudence 171 n. (t) (Glanville L. Williams ed., 10th ed. 1947).

24.As contended by Ms. Pinky Anand, learned Additional Solicitor General, the principle of literal interpretation and the principle of strict interpretation are sometimes used interchangeably. This principle, however, may not be sustainable in all contexts and situations. There is certainly scope to sustain an argument that all cases of literal interpretation would involve strict rule of interpretation, but strict rule may not necessarily involve the former, especially in the area of taxation.

The decision of this Court in PunjabLand Development and Reclamation Corporation Ltd., Chandigarh v. Presiding Officer, Labour Court Chandigarh and Ors., (1990) 3 SCC 682, made the said distinction, and explained the literal rule“

The literal rules of construction require the wording of the Act to be construed according to its literal and grammatical meaning whatever the result may be. Unless otherwise provided, the same word must normally be construed throughout the Act in the same sense, and in the case of old statutes regard must be had to its contemporary meaning if there has been no change with the passage of time.”

That strict interpretation does not encompass strictliteralism into its fold. It may be relevant to note that simply juxtaposing ‘strict interpretation’ with ‘literal rule’ would result in ignoring an important aspect that is ‘apparent legislative intent’. We are alive to the fact that there may be overlapping in some cases between the aforesaid two rules. With certainty, we can observe that, ‘strict interpretation’ does not encompass such literalism, which lead to absurdity and go against the legislative intent. As noted above, if literalism is at the far end of the spectrum, wherein it accepts no implications or inferences, then ‘strict interpretation’ can be implied to accept some form of essential inferences which literal rule may not accept.

25.We are not suggesting that literal rule de hors the strict interpretation nor one should ignore to ascertain the interplay between ‘strict interpretation’ and ‘literal interpretation’. We may reiterate at the cost of repetition that strict interpretation of a statute certainly involves literal or plain meaning test. The other tools of interpretation, namely contextual or purposive interpretation cannot be applied nor any resort be made to look to other supporting material, especially in taxation statutes. Indeed, it is well settled that in a taxation statute, there is no room for any intendment; that regard must be had to the clear meaning of the words and that the matter should be governed wholly by the language of the notification. Equity has no place in interpretation of a tax statute. Strictly one has to look to the language used; there is no room for searching intendment nor drawing any presumption.

Furthermore, nothing has to be read into nor should anything be implied other than essential inferences while considering a taxation statute.

26. Justice G.P. Singh, in his treatise ‘Principles of Statutory Interpretation’ (14th ed. 2016 p. – 879) after referring to Re, Micklethwait, (1885) 11 Ex 452; Partington v. A.G., (1869) LR 4 HL 100; Rajasthan Rajya Sahakari Spinning & Ginning Mills Federation Ltd. v. Deputy CIT, Jaipur, (2014) 11 SCC 672, State Bank of Travancore v. Commissioner of Income Tax, (1986) 2 SCC 11 and CapeBrandy Syndicate v. IRC, (1921) 1 KB 64, summed up the law in the following manner“

A taxing statute is to be strictly construed. The wellestablished rule in the familiar words of LORD WENSLEYDALE, reaffirmed by LORD HALSBURY AND LORD SIMONDS, means: ‘The subject is not to be taxed without clear words for that purpose; and also that every Act of Parliament must be read according to the natural construction of its words. In a classic passage LORD CAIRNS stated the principle thus: “If the person sought to be taxed comes within the letter of the law he must be taxed, however great the hardship may appear to the judicial mind to be. On the other hand, if the Crown seeking to recover the tax, cannot bring the subject within the letter of the law, the subject is free, however apparently within the spirit of law the case might otherwise appear to be. In other words, if there be admissible in any statute, what is called an equitable construction, certainly, such a construction is not admissible in a taxing statute where you can simply adhere to the words of the statute. VISCOUNT SIMON quoted with approval a passage from ROWLATT, J. expressing the principle in the following words: “In a taxing Act one has to look merely at what is clearly said.

This is no room for any intendment. There is no equity about a tax. There is no presumption as to tax. Nothing is to be read in, nothing is to be implied. One can only look fairly at the language used.”

It was further observed:

“In all tax matters one has to interpret the taxation statute strictly. Simply because one class of legal entities is given a benefit which is specifically stated in the Act, does not mean that the benefit can be extended to legal entities not referred to in the Act as there is no equity in matters of taxation….”

Yet again, it was observed:

“It may thus be taken as a maxim of tax law, which although not to be overstressed ought not to be forgotten that, “the subject is not to be taxed unless the words of the taxing statute unambiguously impose the tax on him”, [Russel v. Scott, (1948) 2 All ER 1]. The proper course in construing revenue Acts is to give a fair and reasonable construction to their language without leaning to one side or the other but keeping in mind that no tax can be imposed without words clearly showing an intention to lay the burden and that equitable construction of the words is not permissible [Ormond Investment Co. v. Betts, (1928) AC 143]. Considerations of hardship, injustice or anomalies do not play any useful role in construing taxing statutes unless there be some real ambiguity [Mapp v. Oram, (1969) 3 All ER 215]. It has also been said that if taxing provision is “so wanting in clarity that no meaning is reasonably clear, the courts will be unable to regard it as of any effect [IRC v. Ross and Coutler, (1948) 1 All ER 616].”

Further elaborating on this aspect, the learned author stated as follows:

“Therefore, if the words used are ambiguous and reasonable open to two interpretations benefit of interpretation is given to the subject [Express Mill v. Municipal Committee, Wardha, AIR 1958 SC 341]. If the Legislature fails to express itself clearly and the taxpayer escapes by not being brought within the letter of the law, no question of unjustness as such arises [CIT v. Jalgaon Electric Supply Co., AIR 1960 SC 1182]. But equitable considerations are not relevant in construing a taxing statute, [CIT, W.B. v. Central India Industries, AIR 1972 SC 397], and similarly logic or reason cannot be of much avail in interpreting a taxing statute [Azam Jha v. Expenditure Tax Officer, Hyderabad, AIR 1972 SC 2319]. It is well settled that in the field of taxation, hardship or equity has no role to play in determining eligibility to tax and it is for the Legislature to determine the same [Kapil Mohan v. Commr. of Income Tax, Delhi, AIR 1999 SC 573]. Similarly, hardship or equity is not relevant in interpreting provisions imposing stamp duty, which is a tax, and the court should not concern itself with the intention of the Legislature when the language expressing such intention is plain and unambiguous [State of Madhya Pradesh v. Rakesh Kohli & Anr., (2012) 6 SCC 312]. But just as reliance upon equity does not avail an assesse, so it does not avail the Revenue.”

The passages extracted above, were quoted with approval by this Court in at least two decisions being Commissioner of Income Tax vs. Kasturi Sons Ltd., (1999) 3 SCC 346 and State of West Bengal vs. Kesoram Industries Limited, (2004) 10 SCC 201 [hereinafter referred as ‘Kesoram Industries Case’ for brevity]. In the later decision, a Bench of seven Judges, after citing the above passage from Justice G.P. Singh’s treatise, summed up the following principles applicable to the interpretation of a taxing statute:

“(i) In interpreting a taxing statute, equitable considerations are entirely out of place. A taxing statute cannot be interpreted on any presumption or assumption. A taxing statute has to be interpreted in the light of what is clearly expressed; it cannot imply anything which is not expressed; it cannot import provisions in the statute so as to supply any deficiency;

(ii) Before taxing any person, it must be shown that he falls within the ambit of the charging section by clear words used in the section; and (iii) If the words are ambiguous and open to two interpretations, the benefit of interpretation is given to the subject and there is nothing unjust in a taxpayer escaping if the letter of the law fails to catch him on account of Legislature’s failure to express itself clearly”.

27.Now coming to the other aspect, as we presently discuss, even with regard to exemption clauses or exemption notifications issued under a taxing statute, this Court in some cases has taken the view that the ambiguity in an exemption notification should be construed in favour of the subject. In subsequent cases, this Court diluted the principle saying that mandatory requirements of exemption clause should be interpreted strictly and the directory conditions of such exemption notification can be condoned if there is sufficient compliance with the main requirements. This, however, did not in any manner tinker with the view that an ambiguous exemption clause should be interpreted favouring the revenue. Here again this Court applied different tests when considering the ambiguity of the exemption notification which requires strict construction and after doing so at the stage of applying the notification, it came to the conclusion that one has to consider liberally.

28.With the above understanding the stage is now set to consider the core issue. 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 Tax Officer, 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.



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