Explained: Doctrine of Harmonious Construction

The administration of justice is the firmest pillar of the government

                                                                          -George Washington

Law is one of the important instruments in maintaining peace and order in the society. These laws are drafted by lawmakers and legal experts and many a times we confront situations wherein these laws have ambiguous expressions and interpretations. It becomes very essential to resolve such ambiguities and not allow other sections or acts of a given statute to overshadow the effect of any other given act or section. Over a period of time we have configured certain set of rules which help us in doing away with such inconsistencies. Here the role of judiciary is very crucial in such situations to correctly interpret the statutes befitting the demand of the situation and circumstances. This paper talks about the doctrine of harmonious construction which is employed in such conflicting circumstances, be it conflict between a provision and a rule made within a specific act or conflict between two different acts etc. This doctrine originated as a result of a number of judgements and interpretations given by the court down the line.

Doctrine of harmonious construction dictates 5 important functions:

1. The contradicting provisions of any act or statute must be construed in such a way so as to retain their individual effect and and harmonise their functioning.

2. It has to be assured that no single provision should be executed in a way that its effect would defeat the function of any other provision, and when such differences arise they should be reconciled.

3. The rule of harmonious construction gets breached when any of the provisions of law gets reduced to an ineffective set of words with no real effect or application of that provision.

4. In the case, where two conflicting provisions cannot be reconciled then the interpretation should be made in such a way that it gives effect to both the provisions.

5 .To harmonize between the provisions would not mean to destroy any of the statutory provisions under the act.


In this case, a dispute that had occurred between the employer and his labour employees was taken to one of the industrial tribunals in Andhra Pradesh. After settling of the matter the tribunal had forwarded its award to the respective government for its publication as a mandate under Section 17 of the Industrial Dispute Act, 1947. But before this matter could be published, the parties by themselves arrived at a voluntary settlement and thereby wrote a letter to the government intimating them that the dispute had been mutually settled among them and hence the award need not be published. However the government refused to withhold the publication.  Following this, the employer, one of the parties to the dispute moved to the Andhra Pradesh High Court and issued a writ petition under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution. The petition prayed that the government be directed to refrain from publishing the award and thereby withhold it, so that the mutual settlement made among the parties be enforced. This request was rejected by the High Court in view that the provisions under Section 17 were mandatory in nature and not discretionary. Following which the appellants approached the Supreme Court with a special leave petition on the issue. One of the major issues before the court was to verify the nature of Section 17 of the Act, if it was discretionary or mandatory.

The framing of the legislation and the respective use of words in its framing gives us an idea of the intent of the lawmakers and the effect of such a legislation when applied over any case.  So the use of words “Shall”  and “Must” are construed to be mandatory whereas the use of word “May” is construed to be discretionary.

Applying this principle to Section 17, as per section 17 (1)[1]  the word shall is used and hence  the court observed that the provision mandated the publication and hence it was binding on the government.

Further as per the section 17 (2), it stated that the award submitted by the tribunal  under the above stated section shall be final and should be published as per the guidelines and  cannot be injected by any of the courts..

But as per Section 18 (1), if a settlement is made between the employer and his workmen then in such a case the outcome of the conciliation proceedings shall be binding on the parties to the agreement.

The major issue in this case was that the settlement occurred after the tribunal had forwarded the award regarding the dispute to the government and there was no explicit provision which dealt with course of action to be taken in such circumstances.

In the present case, there was a conflicting scenario between the settlement provisions provided under Section 18 and the duty of the government under Section 17 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.

The purpose of the Industrial Dispute Act primarily aimed at maintaining peace between the parties and settling up industrial disputes between them quickly and efficiently. So in the present case if the parties have voluntarily arrived at a settlement, it should be given consideration and hence the publication of the award should be withheld. The court needs to reconcile between the sections 17 (1) and 18 (1) of the act and in the best interest of the parties, publication of the award should be withheld as a binding settlement had arrived between them. The publication would however not serve any purpose when there practically exists no disputes between the parties.

 This plea was finally accepted by the Supreme Court and employing the doctrine of harmonious construction the court accepted the settlement made between the parties as enforceable under the ambit of Section 18 (1) and directed the government to withhold the publication. It reiterated the purpose of the doctrine and showcased how one of the sections of the Act can be enforced without nullifying the effect of the other sections. Also in labour law, emphasis is given to arriving at settlements between the parties rather than enforcing  award given by the tribunal.


When statutes are drafted, we often come across a number of absurdities as well as conflicting situations. In such a case role of judiciary in interpreting the statutes is very crucial and to construe them in such a way so as to give maximum effect to the provisions acts and legislations at hand as well as appropriately render justice with consideration to the circumstances of his case. It is a useful tool in the hands of the judiciary and an added responsibility on them to assure that the confronting provisions do work harmoniously while delivering justice. At the end of the day, justice must be served at its best to the aggrieved parties and purpose of the legislations must be soundly served.

[1] Section 17 (1) ,Every award shall within a period of thirty days from the date of its receipt by the appropriate government be published  in such manner as the appropriate government be published in such manner as the appropriate government thinks fit”.

Author: Meera Shah from School of Law, NMIMS, Navi Mumbai.

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