This article is authored by Nidhi Bajaj, of Guru Nanak Dev University, Punjab. The article will take you through the meaning, basis and application of the important principle/maxim of interpretation of statutes, namely, ‘ut res magis valeat quam pereat’.
“Unless the words were so absolutely senseless that I could do nothing at all with them, I should be bound to find some meaning, and not to declare them void for uncertainty ” – Farwell J.
The maxim ‘ut res magis valeat quam pereat’ is an important principle of interpretation of statutes which literally means: “It may rather become operative than null”. The effect of this maxim is that an enacting provision or a statute has to be so construed to make it effective and operative.
Without any delay, let us dive into the meaning and other important aspects of this legal maxim.
Meaning of ut res magis valeat quam pereat
As mentioned above, the maxim ‘ut res magis valeat quam pereat’ means that it is better for a thing to have an effect than for it to become void. While interpreting any provision, the courts should not lean towards a construction that renders any provision or the statute void or futile. Hence, whenever the words used in a provision are imprecise, uncertain, and ambiguous thereby leading to the possibility of alternative constructions, then the courts should construe the provision in such a manner that none of the provisions of the statute is turned inoperative.
Basis of ut res magis valeat quam pereat
The maxim ut res magis valeat quam pereat is based on the following principles and presumptions:
- A statute should not be declared void for sheer vagueness.
- When the courts embark on interpreting a provision, the first and foremost necessity is that the law survives.
- While pronouncing upon the constitutionality of a statute, the courts must start with the presumption in favor of its constitutionality.
- The true interpretation of a provision or a statute is one that is in accordance with the intention of the legislature. The intention of the legislature cannot be otherwise than to give effect to all the provisions of the statute for achieving the object for which the law was enacted.
- Adopting an interpretation by which any provision is rendered inoperative or unworkable will be adverse to the legislative intent.
- The courts are to interpret the law and the making and repealing of legislation is the exclusive domain of the legislature. In such circumstances, any interpretation by which any provision or statute turns futile amounts to a rejection of law and that is not within the jurisdiction of courts.
- Courts can strike down a law on the ground of unconstitutionality but the courts cannot introduce any vagueness or unconstitutionality in a provision by adopting a peculiar construction or construing a provision in a particular manner.
Application of ut res magis valeat quam pereat in Indian case laws
Avtar Singh v. the State of Punjab (1965) SC
In this case, the question arose regarding the interpretation of Section 39 of the Electricity Act, 1910. The appellant was convicted for theft of electricity from the Punjab State Electricity Board under Section 39 of the Electricity Act and the respondent proceeded against him under Section 379 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. In the appeal filed by the appellant, he did not challenge the finding that he had committed the theft but only raised a question of law that his conviction was illegal in view of certain statutory provisions.
Section 39 of the Indian Electricity Act, 1910 provided that, “Whoever dishonestly abstracts, consumes or uses any energy shall be deemed to have committed theft within the meaning of the Indian Penal Code”. Hence, as per Section 39, an accused found guilty shall be punished under Section 379 of the I.P.C.
Section 50 of the Indian Electricity Act, 1910 provided for the procedure for conviction in the following terms: No prosecution shall be instituted against any person for any offence against the Act…. except at the instance of the Government or an Electrical Inspector, or of a person aggrieved by the same.
The appellant contended that he could not be convicted under Section 39 as the procedure for conviction as required by Section 50 was not followed. According to the appellant, his prosecution was bad and incompetent as it was not at the instance of the Government or an Electrical Inspector or a person aggrieved by the theft.
The Supreme Court held that since the offence is against the Electricity Act and not the I.P.C., the procedure provided under Section 50 must have been followed. The conviction of the appellant was set aside.
Thus, the Court, in this case applied the maxim ut res magis valeat quam pereat and avoided the construction that would have rendered Section 50 inoperative and futile.
KB Nagpur, MD (Ayurvedic) v. the Union of India (2012) SC
In this case, the question arose regarding the construction of Section 7(1) of the Indian Medicine Central Council Act, 1970. The said provision stated that the President, Vice President, or member of the Central Council shall continue until his successor shall have been duly elected or nominated. The clause “or until his successor shall have been duly elected or nominated, whichever is longer” was challenged as being unconstitutional and violative of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court, while applying the maxim ut res magis valeat quam pereat, upheld the constitutionality of Section 7(1) and held that the said provision was made by Parliament to take care of situations when election to the post of President, Vice-President or member is delayed for various reasons thereby ensuring that there is no vacuum in the membership of the Central Council. The Court thus construed Section 7(1) so as to make it effective and operative.
D. Salbaba v. the Bar Council of India (2003) SC
The question of interpretation of Section 48AA of the Advocates Act 1961 came before the Supreme Court in this case. The petitioner, a physically challenged advocate, was also running an STD booth allotted to him in the handicapped person’s quota. A complaint was filed against him alleging professional misconduct. On 20.2.2001, the Bar Council of India directed him to surrender the booth but he failed to do so within the specified time period. The Bar Council of India gave an order dated 31.3.2001 directing the State Bar Council to delete the advocate’s name from the roll of advocates. The advocate subsequently surrendered the booth and filed a review petition against the order of the Bar Council. His petition was dismissed on 26.8.2001 on the ground that it was barred by limitation. The advocate filed an appeal before the Supreme Court.
Section 48AA of the Advocates Act provides for the review of the decision/order of the Bar Council of India within 60 days of the date of that order. While construing Section 48AA, the Supreme Court held that the expression ‘sixty days from the date of that order’ must be read so as to mean the date of communication, knowledge, actual or constructive, of the order, sought to be reviewed. While applying the maxim ut res magis valeat quam pereat, the Court thus interpreted Section 48AA to make it truly effective. The Supreme Court set aside the order of the Bar Council of India and the enrollment of the appellant was restored.
University of Calcutta and Others v. Pritam Rooj (2009) Cal HC
In this case, a student made an RTI application seeking inspection of his answer sheets which was turned down by the PIO i.e. Registrar of the University claiming exemption under Section 8(1) of the RTI Act, 2005. Thereafter, the applicant filed a writ petition before the Calcutta High Court seeking production of his answer sheets for re-evaluation by an expert examiner. Two conflicting viewpoints came before the Court, one was the view of public authorities that applicability and operation of the RTI Act would render the system unworkable and the other of the information seekers to gain access to the answer scripts by reason of the right conferred by it.
The Court observed that in such circumstances, the principle of ut res magis valeat quam pereat has to be applied. The Court allowed the writ petition and directed the CBSE to grant inspection of answer sheets to information seekers but the plea regarding re-evaluation was refused, leaving it open for the students to seek relief on this behalf in appropriate proceedings. The Court agreed with the decision in Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd.(1940) wherein it was held that where the choice is between two interpretations, the narrower of which would fail to achieve the manifest purpose of the legislation, a construction which would reduce the legislation to futility should be avoided and the bolder construction ought to be accepted based on the view that Parliament would legislate only for the purpose of bringing about an effective result.
Supreme Court’s view
- In Tinsukhia Electric Supply Co. Ltd. v. the State of Assam (1990), the Hon’ble Supreme Court held that the courts strongly lean against construction that tends to reduce a statute to futility. A statute or any enacting provision therein must be so construed as to make it effective and operative. However, if a statute is absolutely vague and its language is wholly intractable and absolutely meaningless, the statute could be declared void for vagueness.
- In Sankar Ram and Co. v. Kasi Naicker (2003), the Apex Court held that there exists a presumption that the legislative intent is to give effect to every part of the statute. It is a cardinal rule of construction that normally no word or provision should be considered redundant or superfluous in interpreting the provisions of a statute. It is not correct to say that a word in a statute is unnecessary or purposeless unless there are compelling reasons to say so after taking into consideration the scheme of the statute and the object it seeks to achieve.
- In Maharashtra Land Development Corporation v. the State of Maharashtra (2010), the Supreme Court held that every word and phrase of a statute is to be understood in its context and must be given significance so that it is not rendered redundant.
- In Badshah v. Urmila Badshah Godse (2014), the Supreme Court held that where there is a possibility of alternative constructions, the Court should adopt such construction that will enable the smooth functioning of the system for which the statute has been enacted and the construction that becomes a roadblock in achieving the purpose of the statute should be discarded. A construction that reduces the legislation to futility should be avoided.
- In Swami Atmananda v. Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam (2005), it was held by the Supreme Court that the statute must be read in such a manner so as to give effect to all the provisions thereof. A statute must be read reasonably and construed in a manner to make it workable.
- In H.S. Vankani v. the State of Gujarat (2010), the Supreme Court observed that the maxim ut res magis valeat quam pereat also means that where the obvious intention of the statute gives rise to obstacles in implementing it, then the court must find ways to overcome those obstacles in order to avoid absurd results. It is a well-settled principle of interpretation of statutes that construction should not be put on a statutory provision that would lead to manifest absurdity, futility, palpable injustice, and absurd inconvenience or anomaly.
Lord Denning in the case of Fawcett Properties v. Buckingham County Council, (1960) has stated that “when a statute has some meaning even though it is obscure, or several meanings, even though there is little to choose between them, the courts have to say what meaning the statute is to bear, rather than reject it as a nullity.”
The legislature doesn’t use superfluous or insignificant words in a provision or statute, and therefore, while interpreting any word or terms in a statute a construction that makes the statute operative and the words pertinent must be preferred to the one that renders the words ineffective, void and useless.
- D.N. Mathur, Interpretation of Statutes, Fifth Edn.
- GP Singh: Principles of Statutory Interpretation, 14th Edn.
- Prof. T. Bhattacharya, The Interpretation of Statutes
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