The General Clauses Act-Interpreting Words and Legal Principles

The General Clauses Act of 1897 establishes the fundamental foundation for interpreting the legislation. The act is also known as the Interpretation Act. It provides a standard set of legal terminology, techniques, and expressions that serve to avoid repetition and a standard set of concepts used in legislation. It defines things more clearly by providing standards for interpretation and expression.

The purpose of the legislation is to ensure uniformity of speech by defining a set of commonly used terminology. So, one of the statutory aids to interpretation is the General Clauses Act making the statutory language more concise.

What is the General Clauses Act?

On March 11, 1897, the General Clauses Act of 1897 was enacted to combine and expand the General Clauses Acts of 1868 and 1887.

The Act covers all fields of law and contains provisions relating to the interpretation of the General Clauses Act and other Indian legislation. The Act’s definition applies only when the context requires it.

The General Clauses Act contains “definitions” of various terms and some general interpretation guidelines.

The general definitions will apply to all Central Acts and legislations where no definition is provided except its subject or context is objectionable.

When there is a disagreement between pre-constitutional and post-constitutional laws and no clear definition in the individual enactments, the General Clauses Act seems very useful. To minimise ambiguity, the Act provides a clear suggestion for contradictory sections and distinguishes the acts according to their commencement and enforcement dates.

The General Clauses Act was designed to make legislative laws more concise and to eliminate the duplication of the same words across the same piece of law. Wherever possible, the purpose of an act is to avoid redundant language in a statute.

Objectives and importance of the General Clauses Act

The Act consolidates many provisions concerning word interpretation and legal principles into a single statute that would typically get stated separately in numerous Acts and legislation.

As a result, whatever the Act specifies about the interpretation of words or legal principles, it must be read in any act or legislation to which it applies.

The Act has several goals, including:

  • To make Central Acts’ language more concise;
  • To ensure uniformity of phrasing in Central Acts by providing definitions for a set of commonly used terms;
  • To express some useful rules for the construction and interpretation of the central acts explicitly.
  • To prevent errors and omissions by incorporating some common form clauses into each act that would otherwise get included in each Central Act.

The Supreme Court outlined the Act’s objective in the matter of Chief Inspector of Mines v. Karam Chand Thapar. The court stated that the General Clauses Act aims to consolidate many provisions about word interpretation and legal principles that would ordinarily have to be defined separately in various Acts and legislations into a single statute. Legislation’s goal is to eliminate superfluous wording from statutes whenever possible.

The Act specifies how general Acts and other legislation with an all-India scope should get construed. Its significance is clear in light of the many legislations to which it applies.

However, much more may be said regarding the significance of the Interpretive Act, termed the “Law of All Laws.”

Essential definitions under the General Clauses Act

Section 3 of the Act is the main section containing definitions that apply to the act itself and all the central acts and legislation post-1897.

The General Clauses Act does not apply when the acts contain separate and specific definitions of their own or when the subject or context of the term is objectionable.

Section 3 defines 67 terms and phrases usually used in legislation and intends to act as a dictionary for the terms and phrases. Some of the essential terms and phrases include:

  1. Section 3(2) “Act”: When rendering a crime or a civil wrong, the term “act” relates to a series of actions and expressions pertaining to acts done and to whether legal or illegal omissions.

    An act necessary to perform does not have to be positive; it can also include acts prohibited by decree. This term is based on Indian Penal Code sections 32 and 33 and relates to civil and criminal wrongdoings.

    The term ‘act’ encompasses both legal and unlawful omissions but excludes non-legal omissions.

  2. Section 3(3) “Affidavit”: Affidavits shall contain affirmation and declaration in the context of those permitted by law to affirm or declare rather than swear.

    The definition provided above is broad in scope. Affidavits must include affirmations and declarations, according to the law. The affidavit is not defined in this definition.

    However, in common usage, we may grasp this phrase. An affidavit is a written document verified by oath or affirmation and intended to be used as evidence in court or before any authority.

  3. Section 3(7) “Central Act”: A ‘Central Act’ is a piece of legislation passed by Parliament that includes:
    • A statute of the Dominion Legislature or the Indian Legislature enacted before the Constitution’s inception, and
    • An Act passed by the Governor-General in Parliament or his or her legislative capacity before the act’s commencement;
  4. Section 3(13) “Commencement”: When referring to the Acts or legislation, the term “commencement” refers to the date on which the Law or legislation becomes effective.

    The procedure by which legislation, rules, treaties, and other regulatory frameworks gain legal authority and become effective is referred to as commencement. A law cannot be considered in effect unless put into effect through legislative action or through the application of authority by an authorised representative to do so.

  5. Section 3(18) “Document”: Any matter written, conveyed, or characterised on any material by way of letters, figures, or symbols, or even by more than either of those means to record that matter, will be referred to as a “document.”

  6. Section 3(22) “Good Faith”: Under the General Clauses Act, the subject of good faith is a factual one and is to be determined based on the specific facts of each instance. As a result, anything handled with proper care and attention that isn’t malicious is deemed to be undertaken in good faith.

    The term “good faith” has been defined differently in different enactments.

    The definition of good faith does not apply to any law that specifies a unique meaning of the term “good faith,”. This definition is only appropriate if the subject or context is not objectionable, and if such is the case, the term is not relevant.

  7. Section 3(23) “Government”: The term ‘government’ or ‘the government’ refers to state and central governments. As a result, whenever the term “government” is mentioned, it refers to central and state governments.

    The explanation clarifies that the word “government,” often used as a simple acronym, can be used in either of the two meanings mentioned depending on the context.

    The Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary are the three wings of government in general; yet, it only refers to the Executive in a narrow sense. As a result, the meaning to get attributed to that expression is contingent on the situation it is employed.

  8. Section 3(27) “Imprisonment”: ‘Imprisonment’ means any type of detention as specified in the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

    According to section 53 of the IPC, offenders are subject to one of two types of imprisonment: harsh (i.e., with hard labour) or simple (i.e., with no hard labour). As a result, when an Act specifies that an act is punishable by sentence, the Court may, at its authority, make the imprisonment strict or light.

  9. Section 3(29) “Indian Law”: ‘Indian law’ means:
    • Any Act, ordinance, legislation, rule, order, by-law, or another instrument having legal force in any province of India or part thereof before the beginning of the Constitution
    • Any law that has the legal force in any Part A or Part C State or part thereof after the commencement of the Constitution but does not involve any Act of British parliament or any Order in Council, rule, or other component made under such Act.
  10. Section 3(65) ” Writing”: The term “writing” includes printing, lithography, photography, and other ways of displaying or reproducing words in visible forms.

General rules of formation of the General Clauses Act

Coming into operation of enactment (Section 5)

If a Central Act does not specify a date for its implementation, it will get executed when:

  • It receives the Governor General’s assent in the case of the Central Act.
  • It is enacted before the beginning of the Constitution of India and/or
  • It is provided with the President’s approval in the case of a Parliamentary act.

If a precise implementation date is specified in the Gazette, the Act will take effect on that date.

Effect of Repeal (Section 6)

Unless some other reason exists, any central legislation or legislation enacted after the commencing of the General Clauses Act shall not repeal any Act which is enacted or is yet to be enacted. The repeal shall not:

  • Resurrect something that was not implemented or established during the period of repeal.
  • Impact the prior operation of any repealed enactment or anything done or experienced under it.
  • Affect any right, privilege, duty, or responsibility obtained, accrued, or incurred due to any repealed legislation.
  • Affect any penalty, forfeiture, or punishment imposed in connection with any crime committed in violation of any repealed legislation
  • Affect any investigation, litigation, or remedy relating to such claims, privilege, debt, or obligation, or any investigation, litigation, or remedy that may be started, continued, or insisted upon.

Repeal of an act that modifies the language of an act or legislation (Section 6A)

If any Central Act or legislation enacted after the enactment of the General Clauses Act attempts to repeal any legislation by which the content of any Central Act or Legislation was revised by the:

  • explicit omission,
  • insertion, or
  • replacement of any matter,

The repeal shall not prejudice the continuation of any such revision made by the legislation which is repealed and in effect at the time of such repeal unless a different purpose appears.

Reinstatement of abolished statutes (Section 7)

To recover, either entirely or partly, any legislation wholly or partially abolished, it shall be essential to specify that purpose in any Central Act or legislation adopted after the beginning of the General Clauses Act.

This clause also applies to all Central Acts enacted after January 3, 1968, and any legislation enacted on or after January 14, 1887.

Construction of repealed enactment references (Section 8)

If any provision of this enactment is repealed or re-enacted with or without any modification, then the previous provision before re-enactment should be considered as a reference to the provision re-enacted unless a different intention appears from the newly enacted provision.

Time Computation

If any law or proceeding is instructed or permitted to be completed or taken in any court or office on a specific day or within a period prescribed by any legislation or legislation, and the Court or office is shut on that day or on the last day of the period prescribed, the act or proceeding shall be regarded as complete or taken in due period if it is done or taken the next day the Court or office is open.

Distance measurement

Unless a contrary intention shows, any distance calculated for the objectives of any Central Act or Legislation issued after the commencing of this Act shall be calculated in a horizontal line in a flat direction.


One of the legislative aids to interpretation is the General Clauses Act. This Act specifies the meaning of a term in general, rather than a strict or exhaustive, sense. Its purpose is to make the statutory language more concise.

The General Clauses Act of 1897 intends to create general definitions that apply to all the Central Statutes and legislations that lack a definition. Every Law has a preamble that defines the Act’s scope, intent, and purpose, and it is the primary source for determining the legislative intent underlying the Act.

It provides that where legislation does not expressly provide a specific date of effect, it will take effect on the day it obtains the President’s assent. When an act is revoked, it must be treated as if it never existed in the first place.

FAQs on General Clauses Act

When did the General Clauses Act come into force?

On March 11th, 1897

What, according to the following legislation, is not an immovable property?


Who promulgates the ordinance?

Ordinance is promulgated by the President when the parliament is not in session.

Which section defines words and expressions?

Section 3

About Author

A law aspirant and a final year student at Lloyd Law College.

I always had an inclination towards corporate and commercial laws because of their impressive and organized work structure with everyday challenges.

I am a dedicated person who is able to express honest opinions and keep patience in stressful situations.

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