Contemporania Expositio Est Optima Et Fortissima Lege

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The basis of this rule is notorious practice and the failure of the legislature to correct the practice by amendment.

Following rules could be gauged while perusing discussion arising in the case of Senior Electric Inspector v. Laxmi Narayan[1]:

  1. In the case of ancient statute they are to be interpreted as they would have been when they were passed.
  2. As a limitation on the applicability of this principle, if the words of the statute is capable of comprehending new facts and situations without abrogating the intention with which the provision was enacted, such interpretation should be allowed to sail through.

In Senior Electric Inspector v. Laxmi Narayan, Mr. Laxmi Narayan Chopra – the first respondent, carries on business as motor coach builder under the name of ‘Chopra Motors’ having his factory in the suburb of Calcutta. In his factory a number of ‘Universal Electric Motors’ are operated for the purpose of working electric drills. Within a distance of 100 feet from his factory, there is a Post and Telegraph Wireless Station, which besides functioning as a coast station communicating with ships at sea, handles public messages in large volume from Darjeeling, Shillong, Gauhati, Agartala and New Delhi. In 1953, sever electrical interference was observed in the said station and experts attributed the same to local induction from the first respondent’s factory. A notice was served by the Senior Electric Inspector under S. 34(2) (b) of the Electricity Act of 1910 asking the first respondent to show cause as to why an action under the said provision be not taken against him.

  1. 34(2): If at any time it is established to the satisfaction of the appropriate government-

(b) that any electric supply lines or other works for the generation transmission, supply or use of energy are attended with danger to the public safety or to human life injuriously affect any telegraph line,

That appropriate Government may, by order in writing, specify the matter complained of and require the owner or user of such electric supply lines or other works to remedy it in such manner as shall be specified in the order, and may also in like manner forbid the use of, and the supply of energy to, any electric supply line or works until the order is complied with or for such time as is specified in the order.

  1. 3(1) (4) of the Telegraph Act of 1885 reads:

‘telegraph line’ means a wire or wires used for the purpose of a telegraph with any casin, coating, tube or pipe enclosing the same and any appliances and apparatus connected therewith for the purpose of fixing or insulating the same.

Issue which was raised in this case was: Whether telegraph line would also encompass electric lines used for the purpose of wireless telegraph within it or not? But for it to qualify under S. 34(2)(b), S. 3(1)(4) lays down that ‘telegraph line’ means a wire or wires used for the purpose of telegraph and there in wireless telegraph lines wires aren’t used. In the telegraph post, electric lines were used which were wireless and for it to qualify as a ‘telegraph line’ under the Telegraph Act of 1885, existence of wire or wires appears inevitable. Appellant contested that the ‘electric lines’ are wide enough to include ‘telegraph line’ without wires as the contemporary developments in science couldn’t have been envisaged by the legislature when the Telegraph Act was enacted in 1885. But a wider interpretation is permissible as it isn’t contrary to the intention of the legislature while enacting the Telegraph Act. Respondents argued by relying on the judgment of the division bench of the High Court that the rule of contemporanea expositio est optima et fortissimo lege should be applicable which means that contemporary exposition is best and strongest in law.

Court also quoted Sutherland’s Statutory Interpretation, and observed:

‘As a general rule it may be stated that the legislative intent should be determined as of the time the legislation goes into effect. But surrounding circumstances and situations occurring after the enactment of the statute may be of great or even conclusive assistance in determining a meaning which was intended to be conveyed. Legislative standards are generally couched in terms which have considerable breadth. Therefore a statute may be interpreted to include circumstance or situations which were unknown or did not exist at the time of the enactment of the statute.’

Two limitations which appear while applying the digressive principle to the Contemporanea Expositio are:

  1. If the facts and situation couldn’t be couched in the words of the statute.[2]
  2. If the intent of the Legislature appear otherwise.[3]

To the question that this rule is applied only in the ancient statutes and not on the modern statute, court rejected this principle and observed:[4]

The legal position may be summarized thus: Thus maxim contemporanea exposition as laid down by Coke was applied to construing ancient statutes but not to interpreting Acts which are comparatively modern. There is a good reason for this change in the mode of interpretation. The fundamental rule of construction is the same whether the Court is asked to construe a provision of an ancient statute or that of a modern one, namely, what is the expressed intention of the Legislature. It is perhaps difficult to attribute to a legislative body functioning in astatic society that its intention was couched in terms of considerable breadth so as to take within its sweep the future developments comprehended by the phraseology used. It is more reasonable to confine its intention only to the circumstances obtaining at the time the law was made. But in a modern progressive society it would be unreasonable to confine the intention of a Legislature to the meaning attributable to the word used at the time the law was made, for a modern legislature making laws to govern a society which is fast moving must be presumed to be aware of an enlarged meaning the same concept might attract with the march of time and with the revolutionary changes brought about in social economic political and scientific and other fields of human activity. Indeed, unless a contrary intention appears, an interpretation should be given to the words used to take in new facts and situations, if the words are capable comprehending them. We cannot, therefore, agree with the learned judges of the High Court that the maxim contemporanea expositio could be invoked in construing the word ‘telegraph line’ in the Act.

 Reddendo Singula Singulis:

G.P. Singh states that this rule has been borrowed from an Irish case, and is stated in the following words:

Where there are general words of description, following an enumeration of particular things such general words are to be construed distributively, reddendo singular singulis; and if the general words will apply to some things and not to others, the general words are to be applied to those things to which they will, and not to those to which they will not apply; that rule is beyond all controversy.[5]

Local Government Act, 1933 provided for a similar example under its S. 59(1) which read:

A person shall be disqualified for being elected or being a member of a local authority if he has within five years before the day of election or since his election been convicted of any offence and ordered to be imprisoned for a period of not less than three months without the option of fine.

Now try applying the principle of reddendo singula singulis in this?

[1] AIR 1962 SC 159

[2]In State of Madras v. Gannon Dunkerley and Co. [1959] 1 SCR 379 it was observed:

The principle of these decisions is that when, after the enactment of a legislation, new facts and circumstances arise which could not have been in its contemplation, the statutory provisions could properly be applied to them if the words thereof are in a broad sense capable of containing them.

[3] Para 22 of the Judgment

[4] Para 22 of the Judgment

[5] M’Neill v. Crommelin, (1858) 9 Ir CLR 61

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