doctrine of pith and substance

The doctrine of pith and substance is one of the oldest theories used to resolve constitutional matters in India. The word “pith” refers to the true nature or the essence of something, and “substance” refers to the essential part, thereby, the doctrine is defined as, “most significant part of something in which its true essence lies.”

The doctrine places emphasis on the fact that it is the real subject matter which is to be challenged and not its incidental effects on another field.

The doctrine is mentioned in the Art. 246 of the Constitution of India. Art. 246 is mentioned in the Seventh Schedule and the Union, State and Concurrent List is mentioned in it. It is used when there is a question on the competence of the legislature on making a particular enactment under the three lists. The court in this matter must look into the substance.

The evolution of the doctrine of Pith and Substance dates back to Canada. The inception of this doctrine was marked by the Canadian case of Cushing v. Dupuy. Subsequently, the doctrine made its way to India and is now a celebrated doctrine in the Indian context and there have been various landmark judgments with regard to the doctrine of Pith and Substance.

There are also various articles of the Indian Constitution which hold good with regard to the concept of Pith and Substance. For example, Article 246 and the Seventh Schedule have a major role to play in terms of upholding the Doctrine of Pith and Substance.


  1. It is applicable in circumstances where the subject matter of the list one seems to be conflicting with the subject matter of the list two.
  2. The powers of the legislature would be sternly limited if every law is declared invalid on the ground that it encroaches upon another law.
  3. The doctrine is known to examine the true nature and character of the subject in order to ascertain as to in which lists it fits.
  4. It takes under consideration the fact as to whether the state has the power to make a law which involves a subject mentioned in the Union list of the Constitution.


Article 246 of the Indian Constitution has clearly demarcated subjects falling in the three lists under the seventh schedule in a rigid manner. The power given to the Union and state lists were neatly arranged so that there was no room left for any of the legislatures to encroach upon the powers of another.

However, in certain circumstances, the incidental encroachment is bound to happen and so the court uses the Doctrine of Pith and Substance to ascertain whether the given piece of legislation is intra vires or ultra vires in nature. If the legislation is found to be intra vires then it is valid and if ultra vires then it is invalid.

The degree of encroachment is not taken into account to decide the validity of the legislation. As long as the substance of the legislation is legitimate and valid as per the rule of this legal doctrine, the legislation is deemed valid even if it has ancillary effects on the subject matter of other legislature.

In the case of State of Bombay v. R.M.D. Chamarbaugwala, the court said that the doctrine can help in assessing the interference of enactment in relation to trade and commerce.

Similarly, in the case of Atiabri Tea Co. Ltd. v. State of Assam, the court held that the doctrine is useful only to decide cases which require determination of whether there is an encroachment in the powers to make laws on the subjects given under the three lists.

The doctrine is applicable in the matter of concurrent list as well. In the case of Vijay Kumar Sharma v. State of Karnataka, it was held that the doctrine of pith and substance is applicable even on the matters of Concurrent List in which both Centre and State Legislature have the power to legislate.


From the above, it is clear that the Doctrine of Pith and Substance has now definitely become well-established in the Indian Constitutional Jurisprudence. It is a paramount legal doctrine that aids the Judiciary to decide upon the validity and legitimacy of an enactment. Without its applicability, the powers of the legislature were bound to become drastically circumscribed but the degree of flexibility it provides to take a balance approach is certainly commendable.

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

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