Between word and intent: On CJI remarks on legislative debates

Chief Justice’s remarks on legislative debates flag need for clarity in law-making

August 18, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 01:22 pm IST

The disquiet over the absence of adequate debate or discussion in Parliament is quite widespread . Concerned citizens and sections of the Opposition bemoan the evident haste with which laws are pushed through; presiding officers fret over the low productivity due to time lost amidst unruly protests; and even government representatives may worry that their legislative agenda is not being carried out in time. The Chief Justice of India, Justice N.V. Ramana , has added a new dimension to this sense of discontent by pointing out the absence of any help from parliamentary debates when the courts are faced with ambiguities or lacunae in laws. His description, of a “sorry state of affairs”, would resonate as crucial pieces of legislation are indeed passed without sufficient debate, and often with nothing more than a Minister’s brief reply or a mere assurance in response to any concern raised by some members. The CJI’s concern was possibly occasioned by some specific law such as the Tribunals Reforms Bill, recently passed with a few clauses struck down by the Supreme Court. However, the import of his observation, at a celebration to mark the 75th Independence Day, was that when the courts were unable to fathom the intent behind some laws, the parliamentary record could throw some light if the debates were sufficiently enlightening. He referred to the illuminating debate on the Industrial Disputes Act as an example.

It is quite true that a fuller debate in the legislature would provide greater insight into the intent behind laws, but a situation that requires a scrutiny of such intent ought not to arise in normal circumstances. Legislation should be drafted clearly and the letter of the law should not stray much beyond its purpose and scope. A purposive interpretation of statute is normally required only when the wording of the law is unclear. Otherwise, reliance on House committee reports or parliamentary debates is only an extrinsic aid, and not fully determinative of a law’s meaning. In a recent example, the Supreme Court ruled that the 102nd Amendment to the Constitution ousted the power of State governments to identify backward classes, even though it was vehemently argued by the Government that it was not Parliament’s intention. It highlights the need to have the wording of the law fully reflect the legislative intent. More than the quality of debate, it is the scope for detailed discussion that imparts clarity and a much-needed proximity to the original intent and purpose to any statute. For this, it is vital that important pieces of legislation are scrutinised by standing committees, which will have the advantage not only of eliciting replies from the executive but also inputs from the wider civil society, before the statute is framed.

Top News Today


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.