Doctrine of Pith and Substance and the Constitution of India

Doctrine of Pith and Substance says that where the question arises of determining whether a particular law relates to a particular subject (mentioned in one List or another), the court looks to the substance of the matter. Thus, if the substance falls within Union List, then the incidental encroachment by the law on the State List does not make it invalid.

Pith means ‘true nature’ or ‘essence of something’ and Substance means ‘the most important or essential part of something’.

This is essentially a Canadian Doctrine now firmly entrenched in the Indian Constitutional Jurisprudence.

Cushing v. Dupey.

In this case the Privy Council evolved the doctrine, that for deciding whether an impugned legislation was intra vires, regard must be had to its pith and substance.

Need for the Doctrine of Pith and Substance in the Indian Context

The doctrine has been applied in India also to provide a degree of flexibility in the otherwise rigid scheme of distribution of powers. The reason for adoption of this doctrine is that if every legislation were to be declared invalid on the grounds that it encroached powers, the powers of the legislature would be drastically circumscribed.

Incidental or Ancillary Encroachment

The case of Prafulla Kumar Mukherjee v. The Bank of Commerce succinctly explained the situation in which a State Legislature dealing with any matter may incidentally affect any Item in the Union List. The court held that whatever may be the ancillary or incidental effects of a Statute enacted by a State Legislature, such a matter must be attributed to the Appropriate List according to its true nature and character.

Thus, we see that if the encroachment by the State Legislature is only incidental in nature, it will not affect the Competence of the State Legislature to enact the law in question. Also, if the substance of the enactment falls within the Union List then the incidental encroachment by the enactment on the State List would not make it invalid.

However, the situation relating to Pith and Substance is a bit different with respect to the Concurrent List. If a Law covered by an entry in the State List made by the State Legislature contains a provision which directly and substantially relates to a matter enumerated in the Concurrent List and is repugnant to the provisions of any existing law with respect to that matter in the Concurrent List, then the repugnant provision in the State List may be void unless it can coexist and operate without repugnancy to the provisions of the existing law.

Important Supreme Court Judgements on the Doctrine of Pith and Substance

1. The State of Bombay And Another vs F.N. Balsara – This is the first important judgment of the Supreme Court that took recourse to the Doctrine of Pith and Substance. The court upheld the Doctrine of Pith and Substance and said that it is important to ascertain the true nature and character of a legislation for the purpose of determining the List under which it falls.

2. Mt. Atiqa Begam And Anr. v. Abdul Maghni Khan And Ors. – The court held that in order to decide whether the impugned Act falls under which entry, one has to ascertain the true nature and character of the enactment i.e. its ‘pith and substance’. The court further said that “it is the result of this investigation, not the form alone which the statute may have assumed under the hand of the draughtsman, that will determine within which of the Legislative Lists the legislation falls and for this purpose the legislation must be scrutinized in its entirety”.

3. Zameer Ahmed Latifur Rehman Sheikh  v. State of Maharashtra and Ors.

This doctrine is applied when the legislative competence of the legislature with regard to a particular enactment is challenged with reference to the entries in various lists. If there is a challenge to the legislative competence, the courts will try to ascertain the pith and substance of such enactment on a scrutiny of the Act in question. In this process, it is necessary for the courts to go into and examine the true character of the enactment, its object, its scope and effect to find out whether the enactment in question is genuinely referable to a field of the legislation allotted to the respective legislature under the constitutional scheme.

This doctrine is an established principle of law in India recognized not only by this Court, but also by various High Courts. Where a challenge is made to the constitutional validity of a particular State Act with reference to a subject mentioned in any entry in List I, the Court has to look to the substance of the State Act and on such analysis and examination, if it is found that in the pith and substance, it falls under an entry in the State List but there is only an incidental encroachment on any of the matters enumerated in the Union List, the State Act would not become invalid merely because there is incidental encroachment on any of the matters in the Union List.

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