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#LearningtheLaw-22-Rule of Last Antecedent and how the Courts have applied the same

Definition from Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary

A doctrine of interpretation by which a court finds that qualifying words or phrases refer to the language immediately preceding the qualifier, unless common sense shows that it was meant to apply to something more distant or less obvious.

For example, in the phrase “the commercial vehicular license shall not apply to boats, tractors, and trucks under three tons,”

The qualifier “under three tons” applies only to trucks and not to boats or tractors.

How the Rule of Last Antecedent has been applied under various Judgements

Case-1-The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company vs Bugwandas (1891) ILR 18CAL620

“But nothing herein contained shall affect the provisions of any Statute, Act, or Regulation not hereby expressly repealed, nor any usage or custom of trade, nor any incident of any contract not inconsistent with the provisions of tins Act.”

Their Lordships may observe in passing, and indeed it was admitted by the learned Counsel for the appellants, that the words “not inconsistent with the provisions of this Act” are not to be connected with the clause “nor any usage or custom of trade.” Both the reason of the thing and the grammatical construction of the sentence, if such a sentence is to be tried by any rules of grammar, seem to require that the application of those words should be confined to the subject which immediately precedes them.

                                                                                                  Emphasis Supplied

Case-2-Mahadeolal Kanodia vs The Administrator-General … on 20 April, 1960 Equivalent citations: 1960 AIR 936, 1960 SCR (3) 578

Relevant Extract of the Provision is as follows:

Provided that the provisions of the Calcutta Thika Tenancy Act, 1949, as amended by this Act, shall, subject to the provisions of s. 9, also apply and be deemed to have always applied to all suits, appeals and proceedings pending-

The Supreme Court held that

We are unable to see how it is possible, unless rules of grammar are totally disregarded to read the words as amended by this Act ” as to qualify the word provisions.” If ordinary grammatical rules are applied there is no escape from the conclusion that the adjectival phrase ” as amended by this Act ” qualifies the proximate substantive, viz., the Calcutta, Thika Tenancy Act, 1949. There is no escape from the conclusion therefore that what the Legislature was saying by this was nothing more or less than that the provisions of the amended Thika Tenancy Act shall apply.

Emphasis Supplied

Case-3- Aswini … vs Arabinda Bose And Another on 27 October, 1952 Equivalent citations: 1952 AIR 369, 1953 SCR 1

Section 2 of Supreme Court Advocates (Practice in High Courts) Act, 1951, provided that

“Notwithstanding anything contained in the Indian Bar Councils Act, 1926, or in any other law regulating the conditions subject to which a person not entered in the roll of Advocates of a High Court may, be permitted to practise in that High Court every Advocate of the Supreme Court shall be entitled as of right to practise in any High Court whether or not he is an Advocate of that High Court

The Supreme Court held that

Much ado was made an both sides ;about the coma occurring just before the word ” or ” in the non obstante clause, the petitioner stressing its importance as showing that the adjectival clause ” regulating the conditions etc.” does not qualify the words ” Indian Bar Councils Act ” which are separated by the comma and that, therefore, the whole of that Act is superseded, while learned counsel for the respondents insisted that in construing a statute punctuation marks should be left out of consideration. Nothing much we think, turns the comma, as it seems I grammatically more correct to take the adjectival clause as qualifying ” law “. Having ‘regard to the words anything contained” and the preposition “in” used after the disjunctive “or”, the qualifying clause cannot reach back to the words ” Bar Councils Act “.

                                                                                                 Emphasis Supplied

Case-4-The Governor General In Council vs Shiromani Sugar Mills Limited (In … on 11 March, 1946 Equivalent citations: (1946) 48 BOMLR 483

Section 226 must however be considered in the light of decided cases and of the facts of this case. The section runs as follows:-

  • Until otherwise provided by Act of the appropriate legislature, no High Court shall have any original jurisdiction in any matter concerning the revenue, or concerning any act ordered or done in the collection thereof according to the usage arid practice of the country or the law for the time being in force.

The Supreme Court observed that

if so, do the last words of the sub-section “according to the usage and practice of the country or the law for the time being in force ” qualify ” original jurisdiction in any matter concerning the revenue ” as well as ” concerning any act ordered or done in the collection thereof ?

The Supreme Court held that

we are satisfied that grammatically the last words of the subsection in question can only qualify the words immediately preceding “concerning any act done or ordered in the collection thereof

                                                                                      Emphasis Supplied

Case-5-Siemens Engineering & … vs Union Of India & Anr on 30 April, 1976 Equivalent citations: 1976 AIR 1785, 1976 SCR 489

“72(3) Component parts of machinery as defined in Item Nos. 72, 72 ( 1 ) and 72 (2) and not otherwise specified, essential for the working of the machine or apparatus and have been given for that purpose some special shape or quality which would not be essential for their use for any other purpose but excluding small tools like twist drills and reamers, dies and taps, gear cutters and hacksaw blades:

The Supreme Court held that

 It seeks to read the words “not otherwise specified” as qualifying “component parts” but that is plainly incorrect as a matter of both grammar and language. Structurally, the conjunction ‘and’ joins the two clauses “as defined in Item Nos. 72, 72(1) and 72(2)” and “not otherwise specified” and since the former qualifies ‘machinery’, the latter also must be read as doing the same duty. What Item 72(3) contemplates are component parts of that machinery which is defined in Item Nos. 72, 72(1) and 72(2) and which is `not otherwise specified. The words ‘not otherwise specified’ do not qualify “component parts”: they qualify machinery’. Otherwise, the conjunction ‘and’ would have no meaning. In fact, the sentence would become ungrammatical if the words “not otherwise specified” were read to govern “component parts”.

Emphasis Supplied