11 Mar 2010

Ejusdem Generis: The doctrine understood

In a recent decision the Supreme Court has explained an important principle of interpretation of statute; the doctrine of ejusdem generis, prevailing as an acceptable canon of statutory interpretation in common law. The Supreme Court was dealing with a challenge to the decision of a High Court wherein, applying the concept of ejusdem generis the High Court had held that unapproved teachers were not included within the meaning of the term 'teachers' which was defined in the relevant law as follows; " 'teachers' means full time approved Demonstrators, Tutors, Assistant Lecturers, Lecturers, Readers, Associate Professors, Professors and other persons teaching or giving instructions on full time basis in affiliated colleges or approved institutions in the university'.

In this scenario, explaining the concepts underlying the ambit and applicability of the doctrine of ejusdem generis, the Supreme Court allowing the appeal against the decision inter alia observed as under;

25. This Court is constrained to observe that the Hon’ble High Court has not properly appreciated the principle of ejusdem generis in understanding the scope of Section 2(35) read with Section 53 of the Act. 
26. The Latin expression “ejusdem generis” which means “of the same kind or nature” is a principle of construction, meaning thereby when general words in a statutory text are flanked by restricted words, the meaning of the general words are taken to be restricted by implication with the meaning of restricted words. This is a principle which arises “from the linguistic implication by which words having literally a wide meaning (when taken in isolation) are treated as reduced in scope by the verbal context.” It may be regarded as an instance of ellipsis, or reliance on implication. This principle is presumed to apply unless there is some contrary indication (See Glanville Williams, ‘The Origins and Logical Implications of the Ejusdem Generis Rule’ 7 Conv (NS) 119). 
27. This ejusdem generis principle is a facet of the principle of Noscitur a sociis. The Latin maxim Noscitur a sociis contemplates that a statutory term is recognised by its associated words. The Latin word ‘sociis’ means ‘society’. Therefore, when general words are juxtaposed with specific words, general words cannot be read in isolation. Their colour and their contents are to be derived from their context [See similar observations of Viscount Simonds in Attorney General v. Prince Ernest Augustus of Hanover, (1957) AC 436 at 461 of the report]
28. But like all other linguistic canons of construction, the ejusdem generis principle applies only when a contrary intention does not appear. In instant case, a contrary intention is clearly indicated inasmuch as the definition of ‘teachers’ under Section 2(35) of the said Act, as pointed out above, is in two parts. The first part deals with enumerated categories but the second part which begins by the expression “and other” envisages a different category of persons. Here ‘and’ is disjunctive. So, while construing such a definition the principle of ejusdem generis cannot be applied. 
29. In this context, we should do well to remember the caution sounded by Lord Scarman in Quazi v. Quazi – [(1979) 3 All-England Reports 897]. At page 916 of the report, the learned Law Lord made this pertinent observation:- “If the legislative purpose of a statute is such that a statutory series should be read ejusdem generis, so be it; the rule is helpful. But, if it is not, the rule is more likely to defeat than to fulfil the purpose of the statute. The rule, like many other rules of statutory interpretation, is a useful servant but a bad master.” 
30. This Court while construing the principle of ejusdem generis laid down similar principles in the case of K.K. Kochuni v. State of Madras and Kerala, [AIR 1960 SC 1080]. A Constitution Bench of this Court in Kochuni (supra) speaking through Justice Subba Rao (as His Lordship then was) at paragraph 50 at page 1103 of the report opined:- “...The rule is that when general words follow particular and specific words of the same nature, the general words must be confined to the things of the same kind as those specified. But it is clearly laid down by decided cases that the specific words must form a distinct genus or category. It is not an inviolable rule of law, but is only permissible inference in the absence of an indication to the contrary.” 
31. Again this Court in another Constitution Bench decision in the case of Amar Chandra Chakraborty v. The Collector of Excise, Govt. of Tripura, Agartala and others, AIR 1972 SC 1863, speaking through Justice Dua, reiterated the same principles in paragraph 9, at page 1868 of the report. On the principle of ejusdem generis, the learned Judge observed as follows:-
“…The ejusdem generis rule strives to reconcile the incompatibility between specific and general words. This doctrine applies when (i) the statute contains an enumeration of specific words; (ii) the subjects of the enumeration constitute a class or category; (iii) that class or category is not exhausted by the enumeration; (iv) the general term follows the enumeration; and (v) there is no indication of a different legislative intent.” 
32. As noted above, in the instant case, there is a statutory indication to the contrary. Therefore, where there is statutory indication to the contrary the definition of teacher under Section 2(35) cannot be read on the basis of ejusdem generis nor can the definition be confined to only approved teachers. If that is done, then a substantial part of the definition under Section 2(35) would become redundant. That is against the very essence of the doctrine of ejusdem generis. The purpose of this doctrine is to reconcile any incompatibility between specific and general words so that all words in a Statute can be given effect and no word becomes superfluous (See Sutherland:  Statutory Construction, 5th Edition, page 189, Volume 2A).

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