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Role of Dictionaries In Interpretation of Statutes

Words used in a statute should be interpreted in the Light of their ordinary sense. When a word is not defined in the Act itself, it is permissible to refer to dictionaries to find out the general sense in which that word is understood in common parlance.

Dictionaries can be consulted by the courts whenever the need arises to know the ordinary sense of a word. However, in selecting one out of the various meanings of a word, regard must always be had to the context as it is a fundamental rule that “the meanings of words and expressions used in an Act must take their colour from the context in which they appear”.

The court must be careful because it is not necessary the dictionary meaning of a word may be the true meaning in a particular context. It is for the court to interpret the statute as best as it may.

In so doing the court may no doubt assist themselves in the discharge of their duty by any literary held they can find, including of course the consultation of standard authors and reference to well known and authoritative dictionaries. In the words of Jeevan Reddy, J. {1) “A statute cannot always be constructed with the dictionary in one hand and the statute in other. Regard must also be had to the scheme, context and to the legislative history”. Again Judicial decisions expounding the meaning of words in construing statues in pari materia will have more weight than the meaning furnished by dictionaries.

In Ramavtar v. Assistant Sales Tax officer,{2) the question before the court was whether betel leaves are vegetables and, therefore, exempt from imposition of sales tax under the central Provinces and Berar Sales Tax Act, 1947 as amended by Act 16 of 1948. The dictionary meaning of ‘vegetable’ was sought to be relied on wherein it has been defined as pertaining to, comprised or consisting of or derived or obtained from plants or their parts.

It was held that the dictionary meaning could not be said to reflect the true intention of the framers of the sales tax law and betel leaves should be understood in the same sense in which they are commonly understood. Therefore, sales tax could be levied on the sale of betel leaves. In Motipur Zaminday Company private Limited v. State of Bihar,{3) the question was whether sales tax could be levied under the Bihar Sales Tax Act 1947 on the sale of sugarcane. The applicant argued that sugarcane being green vegetable was exempt from imposition of tax.

The dictionary meaning of vegetable was quoted in Support of the argument. The Supreme Court rejected the contention and held that in the context of the Act vegetables mean only such vegetables as can be grown in a kitchen garden and used during lunch and dinner as articles of food. This was the common parlance meaning of the term and the legislature intended the word to be under stood only in such sense and consequently, the dictionary meaning was not of much consequence under the circumstances of the case.

In Kanwar Singh v. Delhi Administration, {4) the appellants beat up the officers of the respondents while the latter were pounding up stray cattle. The appellants were charged under section 332, Indian Penal Code but they pleaded the right of private defense of property. The question was whether the cattle being pounded up were abandoned within the meaning of section 418, Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957.

The appellants emphasized on the dictionary meaning of the term which means ‘Complete leaving of a thing as a final rejection of one’s responsibilities so that it becomes ownerless’. Observing that the acceptance of dictionary meaning would destroy the primary purpose of the Act itself which could never is the intention of the legislature; the court held that abandoned means Unattended or let loose, in the present context of the statute.

In Balram Kumawat v. Union of India, {5) the supreme court remarked that where the object of the Parliament was to stop not only trade in imported elephant ivory but ivory of every description under the wildlife protection Act, 1972 as amended by Act 44-of 1991 vide Section 49-C, the word ivory will include ivory of every description imbedding mammoth ivory as is clear from the dictionary meaning of the word Ivory.

In Peyare lal v/s Mahadeo Ramachandra, {6) the appellant was charged under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 for selling supari sweetened with a lamed artificial sweetener. The question was whether such a supari was an adulterated food within the meaning of the Act.

The appellant relied on the dictionary meaning of the word food and contended that he had committed no offence. Rejecting the contention, the Supreme Court held that dictionary meaning is not of much value when the word is defined in the Act itself. The word food has been defined under the Act very widely and covers all articles used as food as also every component entering into it including flavoring and coloring matters and preservative.

Reference:
  1. Central Provinces and Berar Sales Tax Act, 1947
  2. Bihar Sales Tax Act 1947
  3. Indian Penal Code 1860
  4. Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957
  5. Wildlife protection Act, 1972
  6. Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954
  7. Prof. T. Bhattacharyya, The Interpretation Of Statutes, (Central law Agency, 10th edn.,)
  8. D. N. Mathur, Interpretation Of Statutes, (Central Law Publiction, 5th edn., 2015)
End Notes:
  1. Builders Associations Of India vs Union Of India   (1993) 204 ITR 412
  2. AIR 1961 SC
  3. AIR 1962 SC 660
  4. AIR 1965 SC 871
  5. AIR 2003 SC
  6. AIR 1974 SC

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