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Section 91 and 92 and interpretation of contracts

Supreme Court of India

Roop Kumar vs Mohan Thedani on 2 April, 2003

it would be proper to deal with the plea relating to scope and ambit of Sections 91 and 92 of the Evidence Act.

Section 91 relates to evidence of terms of contract, grants and other disposition of properties reduced to form of document. This section merely forbids proving the contents of a writing otherwise than by writing itself; it is covered by the ordinary rule of law of evidence, applicable not merely to solemn writings of the sort named but to others known some times as the "best evidence rule". It is in reality declaring a doctrine of the substantive law, namely, in the case of a written contract, that of all proceedings and contemporaneous oral expressions of the thing are merged in the writing or displaced by it. (See Thayer's Preliminary Law on Evidence p.397 and p.398; Phipson Evidence 7th Edn. P.546; Wigmore's Evidence p.2406.) It has been best described by Wigmore stating that the rule is in no sense a rule of evidence but a rule of substantive law. It does not exclude certain data because they are for one or another reason untrustworthy or undesirable means of evidencing some fact to be proved. It does not concern a probative mental process - the process of believing one fact on the faith of another. What the rule does is to declare that certain kinds of facts are legally ineffective in the substantive law; and this of course (like any other ruling of substantive law) results in forbidding the fact to be proved at all. But this prohibition of proving it is merely that dramatic aspect of the process of applying the rule of substantive law. When a thing is not to be proved at all the rule of prohibition does not become a rule of evidence merely because it comes into play when the counsel offers to "prove" it or "give evidence" of it; otherwise, any rule of law whatever might reduced to a rule of evidence. It would become the legitimate progeny of the law of evidence. For the purpose of specific varieties of jural effects - sale, contract etc. there are specific requirements varying according to the subject. On contrary there are also certain fundamental elements common to all and capable of being generalised. Every jural act may have the following four elements:

(a) the enaction or creation of the act.

(b) its integration or embodiment in a single memorial when desired;

(c) its solemnization or fulfillment of the prescribed forms, if any; and

(d) the interpretation or application of the act to the external objects affected by it.

The first and fourth are necessarily involved in every jural act, and second and third may or may not become practically important, but are always possible elements.

The enaction or creation of an act is concerned with the question whether any jural act of the alleged tenor has been consummated; or, if consummated, whether the circumstances attending its creation authorise its avoidance or annulment. The integration of the act consists in embodying it in a single utterance or memorial commonly, of course, a written one. This process of integration may be required by law, or it may be adopted voluntarily by the actor or actors and in the latter case, either wholly or partially. Thus, the question in its usual form is whether the particular document was intended by the parties to cover certain subjects of transaction between them and, therefore, to deprive of legal effect all other utterances.

The practical consequence of integration is that its scattered parts, in their former and incohate shape, have no longer any jural effect; they are replaced by a single embodiment of the act. In other words, when a jural act is embodied in a single memorial all other utterances of the parties on the topic are legally immaterial for the purpose of determining what are the terms of their act. This rule is based upon an assumed intention on the part of the contracting parties, evidenced by the existence of the written contract, to place themselves above the uncertainties of oral evidence and on a disinclination of the Courts to defeat this object. When persons express their agreements in writing, it is for the express purpose of getting rid of any indefiniteness and to put their ideas in such shape that there can be no misunderstanding, which so often occurs when reliance is placed upon oral statements. Written contracts presume deliberation on the part of the contracting parties and it is natural they should be treated with careful consideration by the Courts and with a disinclination to disturb the conditions of matters as embodied in them by the act of the parties. (See Mc Kelvey's Evidence p.294). As observed in Greenleaf's Evidence page 563, one of the most common and important of the concrete rules presumed under the general notion that the best evidence must be produced and that one with which the phrase "best evidence" is now exclusively associated is the rule that when the contents of a writing are to be proved, the writing itself must be produced before the Court or its absence accounted for before testimony to its contents is admitted.

It is likewise a general and most inflexible rule that wherever written instruments are appointed, either by the requirement of law, or by the contract of the parties, to be the repositories and memorials of truth, any other evidence is excluded from being used either as a substitute for such instruments, or to contradict or alter them. This is a matter both of principle and policy. It is of principle because such instruments are in their own nature and origin, entitled to a much higher degree of credit than parol evidence. It is of policy because it would be attended with great mischief if those instruments, upon which men's rights depended, were liable to be impeached by loose collateral evidence. (See Starkie on Evidence p. 648) In Section 92 the legislature has prevented oral evidence being adduced for the purpose of varying the contract as between the parties to the contract; but, no such limitations are impo