Special Law Prevalent Over General Law- A Study


Our country and the laws governing it are required to be dynamic and must adapt to the changing needs of society. To do so, there is an impending requirement of passing special laws to deal with an issue rather than leave it to the chaos of general law.

The Question of whether the Court must apply General Law or Special Law arises only when such a conflict has been brought before the Judiciary. Thus, the Judiciary must be able to approach the case efficiently and be able to sort the conflict.

If two laws, general and special on a given subject, conflict with each other, then the general law must step aside and pave way for the special law to prevail or must be understood in such a way that the general law’s meaning is curbed according to the special law.

Interpretation of Statutes:

In the context of Interpretation of Statutes, the prevalence of Special Law can be tested on the waters of Generalia Specialibus Non-Derogant, Noscitur a sociis, Ejusdem Generis.

Generalia Specialibus non-Derogant- Latin maxim stresses on the extent of applicability of special law over general law. It states that the general law’s ambit is restricted to that of the special law in a way that general law does not have power over a special law.

In order to apply this maxim, there must be a conflict and that conflict must be between a previous statute and a later statute of general and special nature.

It can be illustrated through Suresh Nanda v. Central Bureau of Investigation[1] where there was a conflict between the provisions of Section 104 of Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 and Section 10 (3) of the Passport Act. It was held by the Supreme Court that since there is special legislation in effect, provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code will not be attracted.

It literally means that general things do not detract from special things. In Patna Improvement Trust v. Lakshmi Devi[2], it was held that the General Act must yield to the Special Act and that it is to be understood that if a thing is directed to be achieved in a particular way, all other ways to be achieved are prohibited.

Sri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee v. Siddha Math and Others[3], Provisions of Sri Jagannath Temple Act, and Orissa Estate Abolition Act were in scrutiny where the Supreme Court held that the special provisions of the Jagannath Temple Act would prevail and the principle of Generalia Specialibus Non-Derogant was taken into consideration.

Non-Effect of the Maxim: The maxim’s effect is negated when the principles of Harmonius Construction when two statutes must be read together to understand the effect and Election, where the remedy is left at the discretion of the individual are to be applied.

Noscitur a sociis- This maxim means to know from the associating words. The principle behind the maxim is that when two words are taken together, they must be analogous to each other as the meaning of the general word is constructed limited to the meaning of the special term[4]. This maxim has its application in the limitation of the understanding of words and to interpret the true intent of words used by the legislature.

In I.R.C v. Frere[5], the term ‘interest’ was analyzed to mean annual interest through analysis of the words placed under the Income Tax Act, 1952. In Pradeep Agarbatti, Ludhiana v. State of Punjab[6], perfumery had to be interpreted according to the Punjab Sales Tax Act, 1948 and the Supreme Court held that special use could only mean cosmetics and not Agarbatti.

Ejusdem Generis: This maxim can be understood to mean ‘of the same kind’. The meaning of the general words used in the context of specific words must be constituted according to the specific words used. It’s of a specific application and is not to be taken in the general sense. The underlying principle of the same is that the legislature would not will the unrestricted meaning of the words and if it had wanted to do so, it would not have used the words restricting the meaning.

Essential elements of the Rule[7] include that

  • The Statute must contain an ample count of specific usage of words.
  • The specific words used must fit in a particular category.
  • The general words must follow or precede the specific words in such a way that it’s meaning is restricted.

In Express Hotels Pvt . Ltd v. State of Gujarat[8], Gujarat Tax on Luxuries (Hotels and Lodging House) Act, 1977 was interpreted to mean voluntary inclusion of ‘and the like’ by the Legislature to include the items falling within the charge for lodging. In Jagdish Chandra Gupta v. Kajaria Traders (India) Ltd[9], the term ‘other proceeding’ under Section 69 of the Partnership Act, 1932 was interpreted as not constituting a genus as per ejusdem generis.


When there is a question as to the application of specific and general laws in the same case at hand, the nature of the case and the issues must be analyzed by the Court of Law. If there exists a conflict between the two laws, then there must be a check on the restrictions placed and exceptions imposed by the Legislature.

However, on analysis of the same, it can be safely said that in most scenarios, the Court places greater emphasis on the application of special law, rather than the general law.

[1] Suresh Nanda v. Central Bureau of Investigation (2008) SCC 3 674

[2] Patna Improvement Trust v. Lakshmi Devi AIR 1963 SC 1077.

[3] Sri Jagannath Temple Managing Committee v. Siddha Math and Others, AIR 2016 SC 564.

[4] For the Interpretation of Noscitur a sociis, see Interpretation of Statutes, by Prof. Bhattacharyya. 10th edition, 2017. Published by Central Law Agency.

[5] I.R.C v. Frere, 1965 AC 402.

[6] Pradeep Agarbatti, Ludhiana v. State of Punjab, AIR 1998 SC 171.

[7] For the Precedent underlying the elements, see Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board v. Harishanker, AIR 1979 SC 65.

[8] Express Hotels Pvt . Ltd v. State of Gujarat, AIR 1989 SC 1949.

[9] Jagdish Chandra Gupta v. Kajaria Traders India Pvt . Ltd. AIR 1964 SC 1882

This article is authored by V. Krishna Laasya, Fourth-Year, B.Com. LL.B (Hons.) student at School of Excellence in Law, Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University.

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