In construing penal statutes and taxation statutes, the Court has to apply strict rule of interpretation.

The penal statute which tends to deprive a person of right to life and liberty has to be given strict interpretation or else many innocent might become victims of discretionary decision making. Insofar as taxation statutes are concerned, [ Assistant Commissioner, Gadag Sub­Division, Gadag v. Mathapathi Basavannewwa, 1995 (6) SCC 355]. Article 265 of the Indian Constitution said that  Taxes not to be imposed save by authority of law­ No tax shall be levied or collected except by authority of law. prohibits the State from extracting tax from the citizens without authority of law. It is axiomatic that taxation statute has to be interpreted strictly because State cannot at their whims and fancies burden the citizens without authority of law. In other words, when competent Legislature mandates taxing certain persons/certain objects in certain circumstances, it cannot be expanded/interpreted to include those, which were not intended by the Legislature.

At the outset, we must clarify the position of ‘plain meaning rule or clear and unambiguous rule’ with respect of tax law. ‘The plain meaning rule’ suggests that when the language in the statute is plain and unambiguous, the Court has to read and understand the plain language as such, and there is no scope for any interpretation. This salutary maxim flows from the phrase “cum inverbis nulla ambiguitas est, non debet admitti voluntatis quaestio”. Following such maxim, the courts sometimes have made strict interpretation subordinate to the plain meaning rule 4, though strict interpretation is used in the precise sense. To say that strict interpretation involves plain reading of the statute and to say that one has to utilize strict interpretation in the event of ambiguity is self­contradictory.

Next, we may consider the meaning and scope of ‘strict interpretation’, as evolved in Indian law and how the higher Courts have made a distinction while interpreting a taxation statute on one hand and tax exemption notification on the other. In Black’s Law Dictionary (10th Edn.) ‘strict interpretation’ is described as under:

Strict interpretation. (16c) 1. An interpretation according to the narrowest, most literal meaning of the words without regard for context and other permissible 4 Mangalore Chemicals Case (Infra para 37).
meanings. 2. An interpretation according to what the interpreter narrowly believes to have been the specific intentions or understandings of the text’s authors or ratifiers, and no more.­ Also termed (in senses 1 & 2) strict construction, literal interpretation; literal construction; restricted interpretation; interpretatio stricta; interpretatio restricta; interpretatio verbalis. 3. The philosophy underlying strict interpretation of statues.­ Also termed as close interpretation; interpretatio restrictive. See strict constructionism under constructionism. Cf. large interpretation; liberal interpretation (2).

“Strict construction of a statute is that which refuses to expand the law by implications or equitable considerations, but confines its operation to cases which are clearly within the letter of the statute, as well as within its spirit or reason, not so as to defeat the manifest purpose of the legislature, but so as to resolve all reasonable doubts against the applicability of the statute to the particular case.’ Willam M. Lile et al., Brief Making and the use of Law Books 343 (Roger W. Cooley & Charles Lesly Ames eds., 3d ed. 1914).

“Strict interpretation is an equivocal expression, for it means either literal or narrow. When a provision is ambiguous, one of its meaning may be wider than the other, and the strict (i.e., narrow) sense is not necessarily the strict (i.e., literal) sense.” John Salmond , Jurisprudence 171 n. (t) (Glanville L. Williams ed., 10th ed. 1947).

Unless otherwise provided, the same word must normally be construed throughout the Act in the same sense, and in the case of old statutes regard must be had to its contemporary meaning if there has been no change with the passage of time.”

That strict interpretation does not encompass strict­ literalism into its fold. It may be relevant to note that simply juxtaposing ‘strict interpretation’ with ‘literal rule’ would result in ignoring an important aspect that is ‘apparent legislative intent’. We are alive to the fact that there may be overlapping in some cases between the aforesaid two rules. With certainty, we can observe that, ‘strict interpretation’ does not encompass such literalism, which lead to absurdity and go against the legislative intent. As noted above, if literalism is at the far end of the spectrum, wherein it accepts no implications or inferences, then ‘strict interpretation’ can be implied to accept some form of essential inferences which literal rule may not accept.

 We are not suggesting that literal rule de hors the strict interpretation nor one should ignore to ascertain the interplay between ‘strict interpretation’ and ‘literal interpretation’. We may reiterate at the cost of repetition that strict interpretation of a statute certainly involves literal or plain meaning test. The other tools of interpretation, namely contextual or purposive interpretation cannot be applied nor any resort be made to look to other supporting material, especially in taxation statutes. Indeed, it is well settled that in a taxation statute, there is no room for any intendment; that regard must be had to the clear meaning of the words and that the matter should be governed wholly by the language of the notification. Equity has no place in interpretation of a tax statute. Strictly one has to look to the language used; there is no room for searching intendment nor drawing any presumption. Furthermore, nothing has to be read into nor should anything be implied other than essential inferences while considering a taxation statute.

 Justice G.P. Singh, in his treatise ‘Principles of Statutory Interpretation’ (14th ed. 2016 p. – 879) after referring to Re, Micklethwait, (1885) 11 Ex 452; Partington v. A.G., (1869) LR 4 HL 100; Rajasthan Rajya Sahakari Spinning & Ginning Mills Federation Ltd. v. Deputy CIT, Jaipur, (2014) 11 SCC 672, State Bank of Travancore v. Commissioner of Income Tax, (1986) 2 SCC 11 and Cape Brandy Syndicate v. IRC, (1921) 1 KB 64, summed up the law in the following manner­ “A taxing statute is to be strictly construed. The well­established rule in the familiar words of LORD WENSLEYDALE, reaffirmed by LORD HALSBURY AND LORD SIMONDS, means: ‘The subject is not to be taxed without clear words for that purpose; and also that every Act of Parliament must be read according to the natural construction of its words. In a classic passage LORD CAIRNS stated the principle thus: “If the person sought to be taxed comes within the letter of the law he must be taxed, however great the hardship may appear to the judicial mind to be. On the other hand, if the Crown seeking to recover the tax, cannot bring the subject within the letter of the law, the subject is free, however apparently within the spirit of law the case might otherwise appear to be. In other words, if there be admissible in any statute, what is called an equitable construction, certainly, such a construction is not admissible in a taxing statute where you can simply adhere to the words of the statute. VISCOUNT SIMON quoted with approval a passage from ROWLATT, J. expressing the principle in the following words: “In a taxing Act one has to look merely at what is clearly said. This is no room for any intendment. There is no equity about a tax. There is no presumption as to tax. Nothing is to be read in, nothing is to be implied. One can only look fairly at the language used.” It was further observed:

“In all tax matters one has to interpret the taxation statute strictly. Simply because one class of legal entities is given a benefit which is specifically stated in the Act, does not mean that the benefit can be extended to legal entities not referred to in the Act as there is no equity in matters of taxation….” Yet again, it was observed:
“It may thus be taken as a maxim of tax law, which although not to be overstressed ought not to be forgotten that, “the subject is not to be taxed unless the words of the taxing statute unambiguously impose the tax on him”, [Russel v. Scott, (1948) 2 All ER 1]. The proper course in construing revenue Acts is to give a fair and reasonable construction to their language without leaning to one side or the other but keeping in mind that no tax can be imposed without words clearly showing an intention to lay the burden and that equitable construction of the words is not permissible [Ormond Investment Co. v.
Betts, (1928) AC 143]. Considerations of hardship, injustice or anomalies do not play any useful role in construing taxing statutes unless there be some real ambiguity [Mapp v. Oram, (1969) 3 All ER 215]. It has also been said that if taxing provision is “so wanting in clarity that no meaning is reasonably clear, the courts will be unable to regard it as of any effect [IRC v. Ross and Coutler, (1948) 1 All ER 616].” Further elaborating on this aspect, the learned author stated as follows:
“Therefore, if the words used are ambiguous and reasonable open to two interpretations benefit of interpretation is given to the subject [Express Mill v. Municipal Committee, Wardha, AIR 1958 SC 341]. If the Legislature fails to express itself clearly and the taxpayer escapes by not being brought within the letter of the law, no question of unjustness as such arises [CIT v. Jalgaon Electric Supply Co., AIR 1960 SC 1182]. But equitable considerations are not relevant in construing a taxing statute, [CIT, W.B. v.
Central India Industries, AIR 1972 SC 397], and similarly logic or reason cannot be of much avail in interpreting a taxing statute [Azam Jha v. Expenditure Tax Officer, Hyderabad, AIR 1972 SC 2319]. It is well settled that in the field of taxation, hardship or equity has no role to play in determining eligibility to tax and it is for the Legislature to determine the same [Kapil Mohan v. Commr. of Income Tax, Delhi, AIR 1999 SC 573]. Similarly, hardship or equity is not relevant in interpreting provisions imposing stamp duty, which is a tax, and the court should not concern itself with the intention of the Legislature when the language expressing such intention is plain and unambiguous [State of Madhya Pradesh v. Rakesh Kohli & Anr., (2012) 6 SCC 312]. But just as reliance upon equity does not avail an assesse, so it does not avail the Revenue.” The passages extracted above, were quoted with approval by this Court in at least two decisions being Commissioner of Income Tax vs. Kasturi Sons Ltd., (1999) 3 SCC 346 and State of West Bengal vs. Kesoram Industries Limited, (2004) 10 SCC 201 [hereinafter referred as ‘Kesoram Industries Case’ for brevity]. In the later decision, a Bench of seven Judges, after citing the above passage from Justice G.P. Singh’s treatise, summed up the following principles applicable to the interpretation of a taxing statute:
“(i) In interpreting a taxing statute, equitable considerations are entirely out of place. A taxing statute cannot be interpreted on any presumption or assumption. A taxing statute has to be interpreted in the light of what is clearly expressed; it cannot imply anything which is not expressed; it cannot import provisions in the statute so as to supply any deficiency; (ii) Before taxing any person, it must be shown that he falls within the ambit of the charging section by clear words used in the section; and (iii) If the words are ambiguous and open to two interpretations, the benefit of interpretation is given to the subject and there is nothing unjust in a taxpayer escaping if the letter of the law fails to catch him on account of Legislature’s failure to express itself clearly”.