The Latin maxim contemporanea expositio est optima et fortissima in lege bears the literal meaning ‘the best way to construct a document is to read it as it would be read when it was made. In the legal framework, it states that an enactment should be interpreted in such a manner that it preserves the meaning intended by its creator in the truest sense, and in the context of the circumstances prevailing at the time of its construction, and not by the individual’s discretion.
This maxim was exercised in JK Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mills Ltd v Union of India, when the Collector Central Excise held JK Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mills in default for not paying central excise on the yarn used as an intermediary raw material for fabric production. The Mills claimed Contemporanea expositor and appealed that levy of excise on yarn and other fabrics is applicable only when it is removed from the factory premises, and not if it is utilised in intermediary stages. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the appellants’ plea, presenting their judgement by holding the Mills liable for the payment of excise.
In reaching this judgement, the apex court referenced the decision in KP Varghese v The Income Tax Officer, Ernakulam. In this judgement, the maxim was appropriately applied, considering that there was ambiguity in the relied case as a word had two possible constructions. This was untrue for JK Cotton Spinning and Weaving Mills Ltd v Union of India, where the maxim was pleaded in the absence of an ambiguity, with the consequence of their plea being rejected.
The maxim was also applied in National Textile Corporation, New Delhi, and another v Swadeshi Mining and Manufacturing Co Ltd, Lucknow. The issue in regard was whether the shares held by Swadeshi Cotton Mills in Swadeshi Mining and Manufacturing Co Ltd and Swadeshi Polytex Ltd, come under the possession of the Central Government. The appellants posited that possession of certain documents was necessary for the shares to be vested with the Government, however, the apex court ruled against this. The judgement claimed that the case could be resolved by interpreting the relevant provisions of the Swadeshi Cotton Mills Co Ltd Act 1986, with regard to which the claim was made, enforcing that there is no ambiguity and the maxim is not applicable in this case.
The maxim holds significance in interpreting an enactment and reinforcing as stated by Salmond that the essence of law lies in the spirit, and not its letters.