Doctrine of substantial compliance and “intended use”
32. The doctrine of substantial compliance is a judicial invention, equitable in nature, designed to avoid hardship in cases where a party does all that can reasonably be expected of it, but failed or faulted in some minor or inconsequent aspects which cannot be described as the “essence” or the “substance” of the requirements. Like the concept of “reasonableness”, the acceptance or otherwise of a plea of “substantial compliance” depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case and the purpose and object to be achieved and the context of the prerequisites which are essential to achieve the object and purpose of the rule or the regulation. Such a defence cannot be pleased if a clear statutory prerequisite which effectuates the object and the purpose of the statute has not been met. Certainly, it means that the Court should determine whether the statute has been followed sufficiently so as to carry out the intent for which the statute was enacted and not a mirror image type of strict compliance.
Substantial compliance means “actual compliance in respect to the substance essential to every reasonable objective of the statute” and the Court should determine whether the statute has been followed sufficiently so as to carry out the intent of the statute and accomplish the reasonable objectives for which it was passed.
33. A fiscal statute generally seeks to preserve the need to comply strictly with regulatory requirements that are important, especially when a party seeks the benefits of an exemption clause that are important. Substantial compliance with an enactment is insisted, where mandatory and directory requirements are lumped together, for in such a case, if mandatory requirements are complied with, it will be proper to say that the enactment has been substantially complied with notwithstanding the noncompliance of directory requirements. In cases where substantial compliance has been found, there has been actual compliance with the statute, albeit procedurally faulty. The doctrine of substantial compliance seeks to preserve the need to comply strictly with the conditions or requirements that are important to invoke a tax or duty exemption and to forgive noncompliance for either unimportant and tangential requirements or requirements that are so confusingly or incorrectly written that an earnest effort at compliance should be accepted.
34. The test for determining the applicability of the substantial compliance doctrine has been the subject of a myriad of cases and quite often, the critical question to be examined is whether the requirements relate to the “substance” or “essence” of the statute, if so, strict adherence to those requirements is a precondition to give effect to that doctrine. On the other hand, if the requirements are procedural or directory in that they are not of the “essence” of the thing to be done but are given with a view to the orderly conduct of business, they may be fulfilled by substantial, if not strict compliance. In other words, a mere attempted compliance may not be sufficient, but actual compliance with those factors which are considered as essential.”
40.After considering the various authorities, some of which are adverted to above, we are compelled to observe how true it is to say that there exists unsatisfactory state of law in relation to interpretation of exemption clauses. Various Benches which decided the question of interpretation of taxing statute on one hand and exemption notification on the other, have broadly assumed (we are justified to say this) that the position is well settled in the interpretation of a taxing statute: It is the law that any ambiguity in a taxing statute should enure to the benefit of the subject/assessee, but any ambiguity in the exemption clause of exemption notification must be conferred in favour of revenue – and such exemption should be allowed to be availed only to those subjects/assesses who demonstrate that a case for exemption squarely falls within the parameters enumerated in the notification and that the claimants satisfy all the conditions precedent for availing exemption. Presumably for this reason the Bench which decided Surendra Cotton Oil Mills Case (supra) observed that there exists unsatisfactory state of law and the Bench which referred the matter initially, seriously doubted the conclusion in Sun Export Case(supra) that the ambiguity in an exemption notification should be interpreted in favour of the assessee.
41.After thoroughly examining the various precedents some of which were cited before us and after giving our anxious consideration, we would be more than justified to conclude and also compelled to hold that every taxing statue including, charging, computation and exemption clause (at the threshold stage) should be interpreted strictly. Further, in case of ambiguity in a charging provisions, the benefit must necessarily go in favour of subject/assessee, but the same is not true for an exemption notification wherein the benefit of ambiguity must be strictly interpreted in favour of the Revenue/State.
42. In Govind Saran Ganga Saran v. Commissioner of Sales Tax, 1985 Supp (SCC) 205, this Court pointed out three components of a taxing statute, namely subject of the tax; person liable to pay tax; and the rate at which the tax is to be levied. If there is any ambiguity in understanding any of the components, no tax can be levied till the ambiguity or defect is removed by the legislature [See Mathuram Agrawal v. Sate of Madhya Pradesh, (1999) 8 SCC 667; Indian Banks’ Association vs. Devkala Consultancy Service, (2004) 4 JT 587 = AIR 2004 SC 2615; and Consumer Online Foundation vs. Union of India, (2011) 5 SCC 360.]
43.There is abundant jurisprudential justification for this. In the governance of rule of law by a written Constitution, there is no implied power of taxation. The tax power must be specifically conferred and it should be strictly in accordance with the power so endowed by the Constitution itself. It is for this reason that the Courts insist upon strict compliance before a State demands and extracts money from its citizens towards various taxes.
Any ambiguity in a taxation provision, therefore, is interpreted in favour of the subject/assessee. The statement of law that ambiguity in a taxation statute should be interpreted strictly and in the event of ambiguity the benefit should go to the subject/assessee may warrant visualizing different situations. For instance, if there is ambiguity in the subject of tax, that is to say, who are the persons or things liable to pay tax, and whether the revenue has established conditions before raising and justifying a demand. Similar is the case in roping all persons within the tax net, in which event the State is to prove the liability of the persons, as may arise within the strict language of the law.
There cannot be any implied concept either in identifying the subject of the tax or person liable to pay tax. That is why it is often said that subject is not to be taxed, unless the words of the statute unambiguously impose a tax on him, that one has to look merely at the words clearly stated and that there is no room for any intendment nor presumption as to tax. It is only the letter of the law and not the spirit of the law to guide the interpreter to decide the liability to tax ignoring any amount of hardship and eschewing equity in taxation. Thus, we may emphatically reiterate that if in the event of ambiguity in a taxation liability statute, the benefit should go to the subject/assessee.
But, in a situation where the tax exemption has to be interpreted, the benefit of doubt should go in favour of the revenue, the aforesaid conclusions are expounded only as a prelude to better understand jurisprudential basis for our conclusion. We may now consider the decisions which support our view.