The traditional view of courts both in India and the UK was a rule of exclusion by which parliamentary history was not readily utilized in interpreting a law. But as Justice GP Singh points out in his ‘Principles of Statutory Interpretation, the Supreme Court of India utilized parliamentary history on many an occasion as an aid to resolving questions of construction. The learned author states that:

“The Supreme Court, speaking generally, to begin with, enunciated the rule of exclusion of Parliamentary history in the way it was traditionally enunciated by the English Courts, but on many an occasion, the court used this aid in resolving questions of construction. The court has now veered to the view that legislative history within circumspect limits may be consulted by courts in resolving ambiguities.

But the court still sometimes, like the English courts, makes a distinction between use of a material for finding the mischief dealt with by the Act and its use for finding the meaning of the Act. As submitted earlier this distinction is unrealistic and has now been abandoned by the House of Lords”.

State of Travancore Co. v. Bombay Co. Ltd

In an early decision of 1952 in State of Travancore Co. v. Bombay Co. Ltd.[1], Justice Patanjali Sastri while adopting the traditional view observed that:

“A speech made in the course of the debate on a bill could at best be indicative of the subjective intent of the speaker, but it could not reflect the inarticulate mental process lying behind the majority vote which carried the bill. Nor is it reasonable to assume that the minds of all those legislators were in accord”.

“A statute”, said Sinha, C.J.I., “is the expression of the collective intention of the Legislature as a whole and any statement made by an individual, albeit a minister, of the intention and object of the Act, cannot be used to cut down the generality of the words used in the statute.”

State of West Bengal v. Union of India

In State of West Bengal v. Union of India[2], Justice Sinha stated that a statute is the expression of the collective intention of the legislature as a whole, and any statement made by an individual, albeit a Minister, of the intention and objects of the Act cannot be used to cut down the generality of the words used in the statute.

Chiranjit Lal Chowdhuri v. Union of India

However, in Chiranjit Lal Chowdhuri v. Union of India[3], Justice Fazl Ali adverted to the parliamentary history including the statement of the Minister introducing a Bill as evidencing the circumstances which necessitated the passing of the legislation.

Some instances of using legislative history

Over a period of time, the narrow view favouring the exclusion of legislative history has given way to a broader perspective.

  • Debates in the Constituent Assembly have been utilized as an aid to the interpretation of a constitutional provision (Indra Sawhney v. Union of India[4]).
  • Parliamentary debates have been relied upon in the context of a dispute relating to the construction of the Patents Act, 1970, (Novartis AG v. Union of India[5]);
  • while construing the provisions of the Mines and Minerals (Regulation and Development) Act, 1957, (State of Madhya Pradesh v. Dadabhoy’s New Chirimiri Ponri Hill Colliery Co. Pvt. Ltd.)[6]

The Modern Trend

The modern trend as Justice GP Singh notes (supra) is to permit the utilization of parliamentary material, particularly a speech by the Minister moving a Bill in construing the words of a statute:

“…(iii) Modern trend.—The school of thought that limited but open use should be made of parliamentary history in construing statutes has been gaining ground. Direct judicial approval of this trend by the House of Lords came in Pepper v. Hart. In that case LORD BROWNE WILKINSON who delivered the leading speech which was agreed to by five other law Lords (LORD KEETH, LORD BRIDGE, LORD GRIFFITHS, LORD ACKNER AND LORD OLIVER), laid down:

“Reference to parliamentary material should be permitted as an aid to the construction of legislation which is ambiguous or obscure or the literal meaning of which leads to absurdity. Even in such cases references in court to parliamentary material should only be permitted where such material clearly discloses the mischief aimed at or the legislative intention lying behind the ambiguous or obscure words. In the case of statements made in Parliament, as at present advised, I cannot foresee that any statement other than the statement of the minister or other promoter of the Bill is likely to meet these criteria.”

In reaching this conclusion LORD BROWNE WILKINSON reasoned that “the Court cannot attach a meaning to words which they cannot bear, but if the words are capable of bearing more than one meaning why should not Parliament’s true intention be enforced.”

The use of parliamentary debates as an aid to statutory interpretation has been noticed in several decisions of Supreme Court.

In Bennion on Statutory Interpretation, the need for a balance between the traditional view supporting the exclusion of the enacting history of a statute and the more realistic contemporary doctrine allowing its use as an aid to statutory interpretation has been brought out succinctly. This is evident from the following extract:

“It is worth repeating that on a strict view the enacting history should be irrelevant, since the object of Parliament is to express its will entirely within the definitive text of the Act itself. This eminently convenient doctrine has unfortunately proved too idealistic and theoretical in practice.

The essence of statutory interpretation lies in resolving the dichotomy between the ‘pure’ doctrine that the law is to be found in the Act and nowhere else, and the ‘realist’ doctrine that legislation is an imperfect technique requiring, for the social good, an importation of surrounding information. In the upshot, this information is generally regarded as admissible (according to the weight it deserves to carry) unless there is some substantial reason requiring it to be kept out.”

The modern trend is to enable the court to look at the enacting history of a legislation to foster a full understanding of the meaning behind words used by the legislature, the mischief which the law seeks to deal and in the process, to formulate an informed interpretation of the law. Enacting history is a significant element in the formation of an informed interpretation.


Abhiram Singh v. C.D. Commachen (dead) by LRS & Other (2017)

[1] AIR 1952 SC 366

[2] (1964) 1 SCR 371

[3] AIR 1951 SC 41

[4] AIR 1993 SC 477

[5] (2013) 6 SCC 1)

[6] (1972) 1 SCC 298