CA TUSHAR DOCTOR
The principle of Noscitur a Sociis is a rule of construction. It is one of the rules of language used by court to interpret legislation. This means that, the meaning of an unclear word or phrase should be determined by the words immediately surrounding it. In other words, the meaning of a word is to be judged by the company it keeps. The questionable meaning of a doubtful word can be derived from its association with other words. It can be used wherever a statutory provision contains a word or phrase that is capable of bearing more than one meaning.
This rule is explained in Maxwell on the interpretation of statutes in following words – When two or more words susceptible of analogous meaning are coupled together, they are understood to be used in their cognate sense. The words take their colour from and are quantified by each other, the meaning of the general words being restricted to a sense analogous to that of the less general.
Relying on the above, in the case of Commissioner of Income Tax v. Bharti cellular it was held that term ‘technical servies’ used in section 194J of the Income Tax Act is unclear. The word technical would take colour from the words managerial & consultancy between which it is sandwiched. These terms ‘managerial services’ & ‘consultancy services’ necessarily involve a human intervention . So applying noscitur a sociis the word ‘technical’ would also have to be construed as involving a human element. Thus, interconnection & port access services rendered by the assessee do not involve any human interface & therefore cannot be regarded as technical services u/s 194J of the Income Tax Act.
Coupling of word together shows that they are to be understood in the same sense and where the meaning of particular word is doubtful or obscure or where a particular expression when taken singly is inoperative, its intention is to be ascertained by looking at adjoining words or at expressions occurring at other parts of the same instrument.
If one could pick out a single word or phrase & finding it perfectly clear in itself, refuse to check its apparent meaning, in the light thrown upon it by the context or by other provisions then the principle of noscitur a sociis would be utterly meaningless. This principle requires that a word or phrase or even a whole provision which standing alone has a clear meaning , must be given quite a different meaning when viewed in the light of its context.
The apex court in Pradeep Agarbatti with reference to the Punjab Sales Tax Act held that the word, “perfumery’’ means such articles as used in cosmetics and toilet goods viz, sprays, etc but does not include ‘Dhoop’ and ‘Agarbatti’. This is because in Schedule ‘A’ Entry 16 of Punjab Sales Tax Act reads as “cosmetics, perfumery & toilet goods excluding toothpaste , tooth powder kumkum & soap.”
Delhi Tribunal in the case of, Parsons Brinckerhoff India (P.) Ltd. vs. Asstt. DIT (Int. Tax) applying the rule of Noscitur a Sociis held that, the words ‘model’ and ‘design’ cannot fall under definition of ‘royalty’ under Explanation 2 to section 9 (I) (VI) of the Income Tax Act. They have to take colour from the other words surrounding them, such as, patent, invention, secret formula or process or trade mark, which are all species of intellectual property.
Noscitur a sociis cannot prevail in case where it is clear that the wider words have been deliberately used in order to make the scope of the defined word correspondingly wider. It can also be applied where the meaning of the words of wider meaning import is doubtful; but, where the object of the Legislature in using wider words is clear and free from ambiguity, the rule of construction cannot be applied.
Republished with Amendment