25 May 2010

Doctrine of Pith and Substance: The law revisited

Explaining one of the key doctrines to test the validity of legislation challenged on grounds of lack of competence, the Supreme Court in a recent decision has revisited the doctrine of pith and substance as a time tested test for interpretation of Schedule VII of the Constitution which delineates the legislative subject-matter between Centre and States. 

Applied as test to examine whether the impugned law in question actually breaches (rather encroaches) the subject-matter vested in another legislature, the doctrine of pith and substance as come as a key determinant of thrust area covered under the legislation. Applying the same to examine the validity of MCOCA, the Bench explained the doctrine in the following terms; 
35. One of the proven methods of examining the legislative competence of a legislature with regard to an enactment is by the application of the doctrine of pith and substance. This doctrine is applied when the legislative competence of the legislature with regard to a particular enactment is challenged with reference to the entries in various lists. If there is a challenge to the legislative competence, the courts will try to ascertain the pith and substance of such enactment on a scrutiny of the Act in question. In this process, it is necessary for the courts to go into and examine the true character of the enactment, its object, its scope and effect to find out whether the enactment in question is genuinely referable to a field of the legislation allotted to the respective legislature under the constitutional scheme. This doctrine is an established principle of law in India recognized not only by this Court, but also by various High Courts. Where a challenge is made to the constitutional validity of a particular State Act with reference to a subject mentioned in any entry in List I, the Court has to look to the substance of the State Act and on such analysis and examination, if it is found that in the pith and substance, it falls under an entry in the State List but there is only an incidental encroachment on any of the matters enumerated in the Union List, the State Act would not become invalid merely because there is incidental encroachment on any of the matters in the Union List.
36. A Constitution Bench of this Court in A.S. Krishna v. State of Madras [AIR 1957 SC 297], held as under: 
“8. … But then, it must be remembered that we are construing a federal Constitution. It is of the essence of such a Constitution that there should be a distribution of the legislative powers of the Federation between the Centre and the Provinces. The scheme of distribution has varied with different Constitutions, but even when the Constitution enumerates elaborately the topics on which the Centre and the States could legislate, some overlapping of the fields of legislation is inevitable. The British North America Act, 1867, which established a federal Constitution for Canada, enumerated in Sections 91 and 92 the topics on which the Dominion and the Provinces could respectively legislate. Notwithstanding that the lists were framed so as to be fairly full and comprehensive, it was not long before it was found that the topics enumerated in the two sections overlapped, and the Privy Council had time and again to pass on the constitutionality of laws made by the Dominion and Provincial Legislatures. It was in this situation that the Privy Council evolved the doctrine, that for deciding whether an impugned legislation was intra vires, regard must be had to its pith and substance. That is to say, if a statute is found in substance to relate to a topic within the competence of the legislature, it should be held to be intra vires, even though it might incidentally trench on topics not within its legislative competence. The extent of the encroachment on matters beyond its competence may be an element in determining whether the legislation is colourable, that is, whether in the guise of making a law on a matter within it competence, the legislature is, in truth, making a law on a subject beyond its competence. But where that is not the position, then the fact of encroachment does not affect the vires of the law even as regards the area of encroachment.”
37. Again, a Constitutional Bench of this Court while discussing the said doctrine in Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab [(1994) 3 SCC 569] observed as under:
“60. This doctrine of ‘pith and substance’ is applied when the legislative competence of a legislature with regard to a particular enactment is challenged with reference to the entries in the various lists i.e. a law dealing with the subject in one list is also touching on a subject in another list. In such a case, what has to be ascertained is the pith and substance of the enactment. On a scrutiny of the Act in question, if found, that the legislation is in substance one on a matter assigned to the legislature enacting that statute, then that Act as a whole must be held to be valid notwithstanding any incidental trenching upon matters beyond its competence i.e. on a matter included in the list belonging to the other legislature. To say differently, incidental encroachment is not altogether forbidden.”
38. It is common ground that the State Legislature does not have power to legislate upon any of the matters enumerated in the Union List. However, if it could be shown that the core area and the subject-matter of the legislation is covered by an entry in the State List, then any incidental encroachment upon an entry in the Union List would not be enough so as to render the State law invalid, and such an incidental encroachment will not make the legislation ultra vires the Constitution.
39. In Bharat Hydro Power Corpn. Ltd. v. State of Assam [(2004) 2 SCC 553], the doctrine of pith and substance came to be considered, when after referring to a catena of decisions of this Court on the doctrine it was laid down as under:
“18. It is likely to happen from time to time that enactment though purporting to deal with a subject in one list touches also on a subject in another list and prima facie looks as if one legislature is impinging on the legislative field of another legislature. This may result in a large number of statutes being declared unconstitutional because the legislature enacting law may appear to have legislated in a field reserved for the other legislature. To examine whether a legislation has impinged on the field of other legislatures, in fact or in substance, or is incidental, keeping in view the true nature of the enactment, the courts have evolved the doctrine of ‘pith and substance’ for the purpose of determining whether it is legislation with respect to matters in one list or the other. Where the question for determination is whether a particular law relates to a particular subject mentioned in one list or the other, the courts look into the substance of the enactment. Thus, if the substance of the enactment falls within the Union List then the incidental encroachment by the enactment on the State List would not make it invalid. This principle came to be established by the Privy Council when it determined appeals from Canada or Australia involving the question of legislative competence of the federation or the States in those countries. This doctrine came to be established in India and derives its genesis from the approach adopted by the courts including the Privy Council in dealing with controversies arising in other federations. For applying the principle of ‘pith and substance’ regard is to be had (i) to the enactment as a whole, (ii) to its main objects, and (iii) to the scope and effect of its provisions. For this see Southern Pharmaceuticals & Chemicals v. State of Kerala [(1981) 4 SCC 391], State of Rajasthan v. G. Chawla [AIR 1959 SC 544], Amar Singhji v. State of Rajasthan [AIR 1955 SC 504], Delhi Cloth and General Mills Co. Ltd. v. Union of India [(1983) 4 SCC 166] and Vijay Kumar Sharma v. State of Karnataka [(1990) 2 SCC 562]. In the last-mentioned case it was held:
‘(3) Where a law passed by the State Legislature while being substantially within the scope of the entries in the State List entrenches upon any of the entries in the Central List the constitutionality of the law may be upheld by invoking the doctrine of pith and substance if on an analysis of the provisions of the Act it appears that by and large the law falls within the four corners of the State List and entrenchment, if any, is purely incidental or inconsequential.’"
Have a look at the decision.
Post - Script Rejoinder

Subsequent to writing this post a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court pronounced its decision in Girnar Traders v. State of Maharashtra in which the Bench inter alia examined the law relating to the doctrine of pith and substance. For the benefit of our readers we are continuing this post with the observations of the Bench in this decision.

The Court observed as under;
@pg. 137 The doctrine of pith and substance can be applied to examine the validity or otherwise of a legislation for want of legislative competence as well as where two legislations are embodied together for achieving the purpose of the principal Act. Keeping in view that we are construing a federal Constitution, distribution of legislative powers between the Centre and the State is of great significance. 
Serious attempt was made to convince the Court that the doctrine of pith and substance has a very restricted application and it applies only to the cases where the Court is called upon to examine the enactment to be ultra vires on account of legislative incompetence. We are unable to persuade ourselves to accept this proposition. The doctrine of pith and substance find its origin from the principle that it is necessary to examine the true nature and character of the legislation to know whether it falls in a forbidden sphere. This doctrine was first applied in India in the case of Prafulla Kumar Mukherjea v. Bank of Commerce Ltd., Khulna [AIR 1947 PC 60].
The principle has been applied to the cases of alleged repugnancy and we see no reason why its application cannot be extended even to the cases of present kind which ultimately relates to statutory interpretation founded on source of legislation. In the case of Union of India v. Shah Gobardhan L. Kabra Teachers’ College [(2002) 8 SCC 228], this Court held that in order to examine the true character of the enactment, the entire Act, its object and scope is required to be gone into. The question of invasion into the territory of another  legislation is to be determined not by degree but by substance. The doctrine of pith and substance has to be applied not only in cases of conflict between the powers of two legislatures but also in any case where the question arises whether a legislation is covered by a particular legislative field over which the power is purported to be exercised. In other words, what is of paramount consideration is that the substance of the legislation should be examined to arrive at a correct analysis or in examining the validity of law, where two legislations are in conflict or alleged to be repugnant. An apparent repugnancy upon proper examination of substance of the Act may not amount to a repugnancy in law. Determination of true nature and substance of the laws in question and even taking into consideration the extent to which such provisions can be harmonized, could resolve such a controversy and permit the laws to operate in their respective fields. The question of repugnancy arises only when both the legislatures are competent to legislate in the same field, i.e. when both, the Union and the State laws, relate to a subject in List III [(Hoechst Pharamaceuticals Ltd. v. State of Bihar [(1983) 4 SCC 45)]. 
We have already noticed that according to the appellant, the source of legislation being Article 246 read with Entry No. 42 of the Concurrent List the provisions of the State Act in so far as they  re in conflict with the Central Act, will be still born and ineffective. Thus, provisions of Section 11A of the Land Acquisition Act would take precedence. On the contrary, it is contended on behalf of the respondent that the planned development and matters relating to management of land are relatable to Entry 5/18 of State List and acquisition being an incidental act, the question of conflict does not arise and the provisions of the State Act can be enforced without any impediment. This controversy need not detain us any further because the contention is squarely answered by the Bench of this Court in Bondu Ramaswami’s case (supra) where the Court not only considered the applicability of the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act vis-à-vis the Bangalore Act but even traced the source of legislative competence for the State law to Entry 5 of List II of Schedule VII and held as under:
“92. Where the law covered by an entry in the State List made by the State Legislature contains a provision which directly and substantially relates to a matter enumerated in the Concurrent List and is repugnant to the provisions of any existing law with respect to that matter in the Concurrent List, then the repugnant provision in the State List may be void unless it can coexist and operate without repugnancy to the provisions of the existing law. This Court in Munithimmaiah v. State of Karnataka [(2002) 4 SCC 326] has held that the BDA Act is an Act to provide for the establishment of a Development Authority to facilitate and ensure planned growth and development of the city of Bangalore and areas adjacent thereto, and that acquisition of any lands, for such development, is merely incidental to the main object of the Act, that is, development of Bangalore Metropolitan Area. 
This Court held that in pith and substance, the BDA Act is one which squarely falls under Entry 5 of List II of the Seventh Schedule and is not a law for acquisition of land like the LA Act, traceable to Entry 42 of List III of the Seventh Schedule, the field in respect of which is already occupied by the Central Act, as amended from time to time. This Court held that if at all, the BDA Act, so far as acquisition of land for its developmental activities is concerned, in substance and effect will constitute a special law providing for acquisition for the special purposes of BDA and the same will not be considered to be a part of the LA Act. The fallacy in the contention of the appellants is that it assumes, erroneously, that the BDA Act is a law referable to Entry 42 of List III, while it is a law referable to Entry 5 of List II. Hence the question of repugnancy and Section 6 of the LA Act prevailing over Section 19 of the BDA Act would not at all arise.”
While holding as above, the Bench found that the question of repugnancy did not arise. The Court has to keep in mind that function of these constitutional lists is not to confer power, but to merely demarcate the legislative heads or fields of legislation and the area over which the appropriate legislatures can operate. These Entries have always been construed liberally as they define fields of power which spring from the constitutional mandate contained in various clauses of Article 246. The possibility of overlapping cannot be ruled out and by advancement of law this has resulted in formulation of, amongst others, two principal doctrines, i.e. doctrine of pith and substance and doctrine of incidental encroachment. The implication of these doctrines is, primarily, to protect the legislation and to construe both the laws harmoniously and to achieve the object or the legislative intent of each Act. In the ancient case of Muthuswami Goundan v. Subramanyam Chettiar [1940 FCR 188], Sir Maurice Gwyer, CJ supported the principle laid down by the Judicial Committee as a guideline, i.e. pith and substance to be the true nature and character of the legislation, for the purpose of determining as to which list the legislation belongs to. This Court in the case of Jijubhai Nanbhai Kachar v. State of Gujarat [1995 Supp.(1) SCC 596], referring to the principle of interpretation of Entries in the legislative lists, held as under:
“7. It is settled law of interpretation that entries in the Seventh Schedule are not powers but fields of legislation. The legislature derives its power from Article 246 and other related articles of the Constitution. Therefore, the power to make the Amendment Act is derived not from the respective entries but under Article 246 of the Constitution. The language of the respective entries should be given the widest scope of their meaning, fairly capable to meet the machinery of the Government settled by the Constitution. Each general word should extend to all ancillary or subsidiary matters which can fairly and reasonably be comprehended in it. When the vires of an enactment is impugned, there is an initial presumption of its constitutionality and if there is any difficulty in ascertaining the limits of the legislative power, the difficulty must be resolved, as far as possible in favour of the legislature putting the most liberal construction  upon the legislative entry so that it may have the widest amplitude….”
The primary object of applying these principles is not limited to determining the reference of legislation to an Entry in either of the lists, but there is a greater legal requirement to be satisfied  in this interpretative process. A statute should be construed so as to make it effective and operative on the principle expressed in the maxim ut res magis valeat quam pereat. Once it is found that in pith and substance, an Act is a law on a permitted field then any incidental encroachment, even on a forbidden field, does not affect the competence of the legislature to enact that law [State of Bombay v. Narottamdas Jethabhai [1951 SCR 51]. To examine the true application of these principles, the scheme of the Act, its object and purpose, the pith and substance of the legislation are required to be focused at, to determine its true nature and character. The State Act is intended only to ensure planned development as a statutory function of the various authorities constituted under the Act and within a very limited compass. An incidental cause cannot override the primary cause. When both the Acts can be implemented without conflict, then need for construing them harmoniously arises. We have already discussed in great detail that the State Act being a code in itself can take within its ambit provisions of the Central Act related to acquisition, while excluding the provisions which offend and frustrate the object of the State Act. It will not be necessary to create, or read into the legislations, an imaginary conflict or repugnancy between the two legislations, particularly, when they can be enforced in their respective fields without conflict. Even if they are examined from the point of view that repugnancy is implied between Section 11A of the Land Acquisition Act and Sections 126 and 127 of the MRTP Act, then in our considered view, they would fall within the permissible limits of doctrine of “incidental encroachment” without rendering any part of the State law invalid. Once the doctrine of pith and substance is applied to the facts of the present case, it is more than clear that in substance the State Act is aimed at planned development unlike the Central Act where the object is to acquire land and disburse compensation in accordance with law. Paramount purpose and object of the State Act being planned development and acquisition being incidental thereto, the question of repugnancy does not arise. The State, in terms of Entry 5 of List II of Schedule VII, is competent to enact such a law. It is a settled canon of law that Courts normally would make every effort to save the legislation and resolve the conflict/repugnancy, if any, rather than invalidating the statute. 
Therefore, it will be the purposive approach to permit both the enactments to operate in their own fields by applying them harmoniously. Thus, in our view, the ground of repugnancy raised by the appellants, in the present appeals, merits rejection.

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