What is a colourable legislation?

Doctrine of colourable legislation

The doctrine of colourable legislation does not involve any question of bona fides or mala fides on the part of the legislature. The whole doctrine resolves itself into the question of competency of a particular legislature to enact a particular law. If the legislature is competent to pass a particular law, the motives which impelled it to act are really irrelevant. On the other hand, if the legislature lacks competency, the question of motive does not arise at all. Whether a statute is constitutional or not is thus always a question of power.

A distinction, however, exists between a legislature which is legally omnipotent like the British Parliament and the laws promulgated by which could not be challenged on the ground of incompetency, and a legislature which enjoys only a limited or a qualified jurisdiction. If the Constitution of a State distributes the legislative powers amongst different bodies, which have to act within their respective spheres marked out by specific legislative entries, or if there are limitations on the legislative authority in the shape of fundamental rights, questions do arise as to whether the legislature in a particular case has or has not, in respect to the subject- matter of the statute or in the method of enacting it, transgressed the limits of its constitutional powers. Such transgression may be patent, manifest or direct, but it may also be disguised, covert and indirect and it is to this latter class of cases that the expression “colorable legislation” has been applied in certain Judicial pronouncements. The idea conveyed by the expression is that although apparently a legislature in passing a statute purported to act within the limits of its powers, yet in substance and in reality it transgressed these powers, the transgression being veiled by what appears, on proper examination, to be a mere presence or disguise.

[Source: K.C. Gajapati Narayan Deo v. State of Orissa, (1954) SCR 1 ]

Thus the whole doctrine resolves itself into a question of competency of the concerned legislature to enact the impugned legislation. If the legislature has transgressed the limits of its powers and if such transgression is indirect, covert or disguised, such a legislation is described as colourable in legal parlance. The idea conveyed by the use of the said expression is that although apparently a legislature in passing the statute purported to act within the limits of its powers, it had in substance and reality transgressed its powers, the transgression being veiled by what appears on close scrutiny to be a mere pretense or disguise. In other words if in pith and substance the legislation does not belong to the subject falling within the limits of its power but is outside it, the mere form of the legislation will not be determinate of the legislative competence.

It is no body’s contention that Parliament was not competent to amend the Criminal Procedure Code by which section 433A was inserted. Whether or not the connecting Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill ought to have been cleared or not was a matter left to the wisdom of the Lok Sabha. Merely because the Criminal Procedure Bill was made law and the Indian Penal Code (Amendment) Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha did not obligate the Lok Sabha to clear it. The Lok Sabha to clear it. The Lok Sabha could have its own views on the proposed Indian Penal Code amendments. It may agree with the executive’s policy reflected in the Bill, with or without modifications, or not at all. Merely because in the subsequent instructions issued by the letter of July 10, 1979 and the accompanying note (Annex. II) the Joint-Secretary had interlinked the two Bills, the Lok Sabha was under no obligation to adopt the measure as such representation could not operate as estoppel against it.

[Source: Ashok Kumar Alias Golu vs Union Of India, 1991 SCR (2) 858, 1991 SCC (3) 498]
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