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External Aid Of Interpreting Statutes – Speech Orated By Ministers Who Present The Bill

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by Saniya Mirani

The Indian judiciary resorts to two types of aids in interpreting a statute – internal and external aids to interpretation. Internal aids include the preamble, marginal notes, and headings of the relevant statute, etc., while external aids include legislative history, and surrounding social circumstances, amongst others. The external aids are only resorted to once the internal aids fail to resolve any ambiguity. One such external aid is the speech made by a minister who moves a legislation in the parliament. In my opinion, the evidentiary importance given to such speeches by the judiciary has increased from 1950 to 2015.

In the 1950s and 1960s the apex court had expressed two positions. According to one line of cases,[1] the speech made by a sole minister is unable to capture the intent of majority vote that led to the legislation being passed.[2] Instead, the speech only indicates the minister’s “subjective intent”.[3] Therefore, these cases held the minister’s speech as inadmissible evidence in interpreting a statute. Juxtaposed against this, was the case of Chiranjit Lal Chowdhuri v. Union of India. Justice Fazl Ali in this case, expressly relied upon the speech presented by Minister for Industry who had sponsored the bill (later a legislation) in question to understand the background of the dispute. A similar position was taken by dissenting Judge Shah in Shyamlal Mohanlal v. State of Gujarat:

“In construing the words used by the Legislature, speeches on the floor of the Legislature are inadmissible. I do not refer to the speech for the purpose of interpreting the words used by the Legislature, but to ascertain the historical setting in which the statute … came to be enacted”

Thus, by end of 1960s, there existed two views. The first view, regarded such speeches to be completely inadmissible. The second view, on the other hand, regarded these speeches inadmissible for the purpose of interpreting the statute. However, the speeches were considered relevant to decipher the historical background of the statute.

In my opinion, the second opinion was the advent of a new evidentiary threshold for speeches. This threshold, nevertheless, was harmonised with the first view by ensuring that a statute was not given a particular interpretation on the basis of a single speech orated during its formation. The speech was merely used to understand the context in which a given statute was being passed. In doing so, the court always respected the reasoning given in the first line of cases that the subjective intent of one speaker should not be imposed to cut down on the generality of the statute.[4]

From 1970s, the judicial trend has favoured the second view. In State of Mysore v. R.P. Bidap Justice Krishna Iyer, speaking for the Court, stated that the first view is being whittled down and that there is no harm in admitting all extrinsic evidence that is logically relevant, though only when ambiguities exist in the plain meaning interpretation. Justice Iyer carried forward this view and explicitly held in B. Banerjee v. Anita Pan that one can no longer ignore the “voices from parliamentary debates” and that it is essential to listen to the “legislative authors when their artefact is being interpreted”. This view has been repeated in a number of judgments since then.[5] However, it must be noted that the Court has never used the speeches to directly interpret a statutory provision but only to decipher the context in which the statute was passed.[6]

On January 2, 2017, the Apex Court delivered a much-debated judgment of Abhiram Singh v. C.D. Commachen, which interpreted Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act, 1951 (hereinafter, RPA). Section 123(3) defines a “corrupt electoral practice” as:

“The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language or.”

The issue before the court was whether the word “his” in the section referred to – (i) the religion of the candidate (or his agent) making the appeal, (ii) the religion of the elector, or (iii) both (i) and (ii).

Both the majority opinion[7] and dissenting Judge Chandrachud relied on the speech given by the law minister A.K. Sen when an amendment to Section 123 RPA was being passed. The majority relied on the speech to decipher the reason as to why the amendment was made.

However, upon the careful perusal of Justice Chandrachud’s opinion, it seems that he uses the law minister’s speech to interpret what the term “his” means. He states:

“The speech of the Law Minister, who moved the Bill leaves no manner of doubt that the expression ‘his’ referred to the religion of the candidate (or his caste, community, race or language) for whom votes were sought or of the candidate whose election was sought to be prejudicially affected by an appeal to refrain from voting.”

I agree that the judge later goes on to use the speech to understand the mischief that RPA seeks to resolve. However, the above-mentioned portion of the judgment, nevertheless indicates, that an interpretative activity has been undertaken by use of law minister’s speech. If that was the intention of the learned Judge, then this would further strengthen the evidentiary importance given to speeches orated by movers of respective legislations. It would mean that, from the time these speeches were held to be inadmissible, we have come to a situation wherein these speeches can be used to interpret an entire provision in case of an ambiguity.

In my opinion, such a situation would be precarious. It would amount to imposing the view of a person who sponsored the legislation on everybody else to whom the statute applies. In case of legislations passed long ago, it would result in the imposition of a view that may not hold relevance in present times. Therefore, the speeches orated by ministers should be used minimally and carefully so as to ensure that the generality of the statute is not hindered by opinions of a few.

(Saniya Mirani is an Associate Editor at the Journal of Indian Law and Society)

[1] Held in cases such as A.K. Gopalan v. the State of Madras 1950 AIR 27, State of Travancore v. Bombay Company Limited AIR 1952 SC 366, Aswini Kumar Ghosh and Anr. v. Arabinda Bose and Anr. 1952 AIR 369, and State of West Bengal v. Union of India (1964) 1 SCR 371.

[2] Aswini Kumar Ghosh Case, Supra note 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This shift has been recognised by Justice Bhagwati in S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, ¶266 MANU/SC/0080/1981. “The learned Judge clearly held that while a speech on the floor of a legislature was inadmissible in ascertaining the real meaning of the word used by the legislature, the historical setting in which the statute was passed could doubtless be admissible. This decision, therefore, make a clear departure, on the point of admissibility of historical setting, from the minority dissenting judgment of Das J. as indicated above.”

[5]Sole Trustee, LokaShikshana Trust v. Commr. of Income-tax, Mysore, MANU/SC/0273/1975; K.P. Vergese v. Income Tax Officer Ernakulam, AIR 1981 SC 1922; K.S. Paripoornan v. State of Kerala, 1995 AIR 1012; A. Manjula Bhashini and Ors. v. Respondent : The Managing Director, A.P. Women’s Cooperative Finance Corporation Ltd. and Anr., 2009 8 SCC 431.

[6] Ibid; See also, Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Assn. v. Union of India, (2016) 5 SCC 1.

[7] The one delivered by Judges Madan B. Lokur; Justice Nageswara Rao.

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