‘Gobbledygook’ stands for needlessly complicated language that is very difficult to understand. Legislatures the world over have a penchant for it. It is hard to understand why laws have to be worded in complicated language. Is it to make the task of law-abiding more difficult or to provide a fertile field for litigation? More importantly perhaps, can laws be worded in more lucid prose?
Thomas Jefferson criticised statutes which:
And if you thought only Indian laws are mired in obfuscatory
language, you couldn’t be more wrong. Sample
this legendary piece of legislation that was supposedly enacted in Britain:
Practically every country has a rich legacy of outdated laws that are no longer relevant in present times but continue to adorn (or rather, clutter) their statute books. For example, the Indian Penal Code makes it a punishable offence to attempt suicide!
Punctuation is no laughing matter. It is of utmost importance in legal drafting and proof reading. A misplaced comma, it is said, cost the US Treasury a million dollars. In the Tariff Act of 1872, there was an entry which was supposed to read “fruit plants, tropical and semi-tropical” are to be exempt from duty. But a clerk mistyped this phrase as “fruits, plants, tropical and semi-tropical”.
Importers interpreted this to mean that tropical and semi-tropical fruits would be exempted. But the Treasury disagreed and collected tax on such fruit imports. However, the Treasury finally gave way, better sense having prevailed, and refunded over a million dollars. The entry was also suitably corrected.
Income tax laws the world over have one thing in common: they are often incomprehensible legal mumbo-jumbo. Commenting on this, Albert Einstein said, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” Will Rogers remarked, “The difference between death and taxes is death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”
The Indian income tax law, a fecund field for litigation and a minion of the legal fraternity, is no different. Here’s a sample extract from a Ministry of Finance, Department of Revenue notification, dated 20 June 2012:
Could one make sense of this mumbo-jumbo of breathless prose on a plain reading unless, of course, you are an experienced lawyer specialising in Service Tax litigation? Is it possible to simplify the above preamble such that the meaning is apparent even to laymen not trained in the law? Here’s an effort:
1. The Central Government issues this notification in
exercise of its powers under Section 93 (1) of the Finance Act, 1994 (32 0f
1944) (the “Act”).
2. This notification supercedes notification number 13/2012-Service Tax which was published in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part II Section 3, Sub-section (i).
3. This notification is issued in respect of the taxable services specified in column (2) of the table annexed below.
4. By this notification, the Central Government partially exempts these services from the service tax.
5. The amount of the exemption on a service should be calculated as follows:
the service tax leviable under Section 66B of the Act;
ii. Calculate the service tax leviable in accordance with the Table set out below by applying the percentage specified in the corresponding entry (3) of the Table to the amount charged by the service provider for the relevant service. This calculation will be subject to any condition (s) specified in the corresponding entry in column (4) of the Table;
iii. Deduct the amount in (ii) from the amount in (i) above. The resultant will be the quantum of exemption.
iv. The amount calculated as in (i) above minus the amount calculated as in (iii) above will be the service tax leviable on that service.
Now don’t tell me that a notification, to be legally valid,
must inevitably be couched in a long, complex, nonstop sentence of breathless
prose, with many clauses, sub-clauses and provisos. This is a question
of habit and usage. Government has been, for eons, used to legal verbiage that
it feels comfortable with. It has a dread of any departure from this hallowed
tradition for fear that the result could be construed to be not be in
conformity with the intended object. It has a mortal dread of anything even
remotely simple, clear and elegant.
It is fair to say that the Indian Civil/Criminal/Penal Codes
drafted in Macaulay’s times were, relatively speaking, marvels of brevity,
simplicity and clarity in expression. We seem to have lost those qualities
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