Principle of Noscitur a Sociis

‘A man is known by the company he keeps.’

–Aesop

The will of Legislature is expressed in the form of statutes and it is possible that when Judiciary applies the statute, then some words of the statute are ambiguous and sometimes the whole provision of the statute is not clear so the Judiciary interprets or clarifies it to overcome the problem of ambiguity. Interpretation is the way to know the meaning of an enactment by giving the words of an enactment their normal and usual meaning. There are various rules or principles which are followed by Judiciary while doing interpretation like Literal rule, Golden rule, Mischief rule, Ejusdem Generis rule, Noscitur a sociis rule, etc.

Noscitur a sociis is one of the principles of interpretation of a statute and is intended to determine the meaning of dubious words by referring to the words connected with it. This article deals with the principle of Noscitur a sociis and it contains advantages, disadvantages, limitations, and important case laws associated with it.

Principle of Noscitur a Sociis

The term Noscitur a sociis is a Latin expression in which Noscere means to know and Sociis means association. Thus Noscitur a sociis implies to know from association.[1]

It is a rule of interpretation wherein the meaning of an unclear or ambiguous word is determined by consideration of the words associated with it in the statute.[2] It can be simply defined for a layman as, if you want to know the character of a man then you can inquire about the character of his companions and if his companions are bad then he can also be referred to as a bad man generally and vice versa. Here, this same principle can be applied for knowing the meaning of a word by referring to its associate words, and this principle of knowing the meaning of a word by referring its associate words is called the principle of Noscitur a sociis. The standard of Construction Noscitur a sociis as clarified by Lord Macmillan implies that the implication of a word is to be decided by the company it keeps.[3]

For Example, in the case of Foster v. Diphwys Casson[4], a defendant had conveyed explosives in a cloth bag, where the law necessitated that they be conveyed within a ‘case or canister’. By interpreting the meaning of ‘case’ by the words around it (explicitly, the words ‘or canister’), the court presumed that a cloth bag could not be within the statutory definition, as ‘case’ was intended to allude to an option to a canister, that essentially could give protection and structural integrity like what a canister could.

In an English Act which made it an offence to “break and enter into shop, warehouse, or counting-house”, it was held that only that kind of shop which had some similarity with a warehouse, that is, one for sale of goods, is to be included.[5] It is to be remembered that this rule is to be applied only where the expectation of the Legislature in associating words of import with the words of narrower significance is debatable or otherwise not clear.[6] But where it is clear that the statute has defined a thing as including certain matters, it won’t be correct to interpret the general words in the light of the particular instances given in the section.[7]

Advantages of Noscitur a Sociis Rule

  1. There is no requirement for draftsmen to anticipate each specific situation.
  2. The Act can also be adapted to suit unexpected situations.[8]
  3. An unclear or ambiguous word can be deciphered easily by referring to its companion words.
  4. It finishes/closes loopholes in statutes.

Disadvantages of Noscitur a Sociis Rule

  1. It contravenes the idea of separation of power as it indirectly vests judiciary with law-making power.
  2. The result of a case is not easy to determine.
  3. It creates judicial discretion which can be used arbitrarily sometimes.[9]
  4. It can create outcomes that legislature or parliament didn’t intend.

Limitations to the Rule of Noscitur a Sociis

  1. The rule is not applied where the arrangement of words conveys a clear and definite meaning.
  2. It is not applicable where the word has itself been defined in the statute.[10]
  3. Expressly excluded words in a statute can’t be included by using this rule.
  4. Where the words in a statute have been given a wider connotation intentionally then this rule can’t be invoked to narrow down the meaning of words.

Where a series of words used in a statute provides a definite meaning (sometimes it is the practice of the draftsman to state explicitly the specific matters are to be treated as coming within the ambit of the definition), there is no scope for application of this rule.[11]

Important Case Laws

  1. In Mangoo Singh v. Election Tribunal,[12] there was a charge of more than one year’s demand for taxes of Municipality on litigant when he filed the nomination for contesting an election. Before the date of the poll, he settled up all taxes and was also chosen. However, his election was set aside. His contentions in front of the Court were that the significant date was not the date of filing nomination but the date of the poll and further, no notice of demand was served upon him. The Supreme Court dismissed the petition and held that the relevant date was the date of nomination and not the date of the poll. It was stated the word demand is to be interpreted with reference to the collocation of words in which it has been used. So interpreted it must mean municipal tax or other dues.
  2. In Alamgir v. State of Bihar,[13] the construction of Section 498 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 was involved. In this Case, a wedded lady left her husband deliberately and began to live with the appellant straightforwardly. The Appellant was charged under Section 498 of IPC, 1860, and the case was instituted against him. His plea was that he had neither taken nor tempted away from the lady nor had he concealed or detained her therefore charge against him must be taken back. The fundamental inquiry to be chosen by the court was that since there was no taking, allure or disguise of the lady by the appealing party as she was willfully and transparently living with him, did the action of the appellant fall under the expression detains used in Section 498. The Supreme Court held that however the word detains normally implies confinement against will; this meaning cannot be attributed to the word here because the expression ought to be understood in the light of different words in its organization. The word detains is to be interpreted with reference to the expression takes, entices, and conceals used in Section 498. And therefore it would mean detention without the consent of the husband. The rights of a husband have been protected under Section 498 of IPC, 1860 who has been deprived of the company of his wife without his permission. The consent of a woman under section 498 is of no value.
  3. In Devendra M. Surti v. State of Gujarat,[14] the word ‘profession’ under Section 2(4) of the Bombay Shops and Establishments Act, 1948 had to be interpreted by the court. The private dispensary of a clinical specialist was not included under the word ‘profession’ by referring other related words ‘business’ and ‘trade’ connected with it.
  4. In Pradeep Agarbatti, Ludhiana v. State of Punjab,[15] the word ‘perfumery’ was interpreted by a court applying the principle of Noscitur a sociis that it can mean cosmetics and toilet goods but doesn’t include ‘dhoop’ and ‘agarbatti’ under entry 16 schedule A of Punjab General Sales Tax Act, 1948.

Conclusion

Noscitur a sociis is a rule of construction dependent on the comprehension of associated words to determine the meaning of a doubtful word and can be applied with advantage to the construction of words in an Act of Parliament by referring the words found in immediate connection with them.

This rule is applied only where the expectation of the Legislature in associating words of import with words of narrower significance is doubtful or otherwise not clear. But, where it is clear that statute has defined a thing as including certain matters then it will not be right to apply the principle of Noscitur a sociis.


[1] Prof. T. Bhattacharya, The Interpretation of Statutes 61 (6th Ed. Central Law Agency, 2006)

[2] Noscitur a Sociis, Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/legal/noscitur%20a%20sociis (Last visited June 5, 2020)

[3] G. P. Singh, Principles of Statutory Interpretation 499 (12th Ed. Lexis Nexis, 2010).

[4] (1887) 18 QBD 428.

[5] R. v. Sanders, (1839) C&P. 79.

[6] State of Bombay v. Hospital Mazdoor Sabha, AIR 1960 SC 610 (618).

[7] K. P. Chakravarty, Interpretation of Statutes 201 (3rd Ed. Central Law Agency, 2015).

[8] Stephloupoole, Advantages and Disadvantages of the ‘noscitur sociis’ rule, GetRevising, https://getrevising.co.uk/grids/advantages_and_disadvantages_of_the_noscitur (Last visited June 6, 2020).

[9] Id.                                                                                                                            

[10] Chakravarty, Supra note 7, at 202.

[11] Inland Rev. Commr. v. Parker, (1996) AC 141 (161).

[12] AIR 1957 SC 871.

[13] AIR 1959 SC 436.

[14] AIR 1969 SC 63.

[15] AIR 1998 SC 171.

Azhar Ahmad from Government New Law College, Indore

“I am a B.A.LL.B. student specifically interested in Constitutional,Criminal and Family law. I am a Mooter, Debater, Quizzer and Poet with the pen name ‘Chillax Diary’”

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