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Latent and Patent Ambiguity Evidence Act

Updated: May 18

Latent and Patent Ambiguity


When a document is ambiguous, meaning its language is unclear or its application to facts creates doubts, Sections 93-98 provide rules for interpreting the document with the help of extrinsic evidence (evidence from outside the document).

Ambiguities can be of two types: patent ambiguity (Secs. 93-94) and latent ambiguity (Secs. 95-97).

A patent ambiguity refers to a defect that is evident on the face of the document. In such cases, oral evidence is generally not permitted to rectify the defect.

On the other hand, a latent ambiguity implies a defect that is not obvious on the face of the document but arises in applying the language of the document to the facts described in it.

In these cases, evidence can be presented to resolve such defects.

Patent Ambiguity: Sections 93 and 94 of Indian Evidence Act

Section 93 of the Indian Evidence Act deals with the exclusion of evidence aimed at explaining or amending ambiguous documents.

It states that when the language used in a document appears ambiguous or defective on its face, evidence cannot be presented to clarify its meaning or rectify its shortcomings.

Illustrations of this provision include situations where a written agreement between parties contains uncertain terms, such as agreeing to sell a horse for either Rs. 1,000 or Rs. 1,500, or where a deed has unfilled blanks.

In such cases, evidence cannot be admitted to determine the intended price or to fill in the missing details.

The rationale behind excluding such evidence is that the parties involved should have been aware of the document's defects or ambiguities, and if they chose not to address them beforehand, it is not permissible to do so after a dispute arises.

However, if a document omits a crucial detail altogether, such as the price in a contract, oral evidence regarding the missing information may be admissible under the second proviso of Section 92.

While extrinsic evidence cannot be used to remedy obvious defects, the court may endeavour to fill in gaps or blanks within a document by considering its other contents.

For instance, if a lease agreement leaves the date blank but specifies a due date for the first rent instalment elsewhere, the court may infer the missing date from the context.

Section 93 thus outlines the principles governing the interpretation of documents through extrinsic evidence, or in simpler terms, how oral evidence can aid in understanding written agreements.

Moving on to Section 94 of the Indian Evidence Act, this section pertains to the exclusion of evidence that contradicts the application of a document to existing facts.

It states that when the language used in a document is clear and accurately applies to the present circumstances, evidence cannot be introduced to argue that it was not intended to apply in such a manner.

An illustration provided is the case where A sells an estate to B through a deed stating "my estate at Rampur containing 100 bighas," and A indeed possesses an estate of that description in Rampur.

In such a scenario, evidence cannot be admitted to claim that the estate intended to be sold was located elsewhere or of a different size.


Latent Ambiguity

Section 95

When the language of a document is clear in itself but appears nonsensical in relation to the existing facts, evidence can be presented to demonstrate that it was used in a specialised or peculiar sense.

This principle is grounded in the legal maxim "falsa demonstratio non nocet," which translates to "a false description does not invalidate the document." Section 97 complements this rule, and both sections should be interpreted together.

An illustration accompanying this section illustrates the application of this principle: Suppose A sells to B "my house in Calcutta," but in reality, A does not own a house in Calcutta but instead possesses a house in Howrah, which has been under B's possession since the deed was executed.

In such a scenario, evidence may be admitted to establish that the deed actually pertained to the house in Howrah, despite the incorrect reference to Calcutta.

Section 96

According to Section 96 of the Indian Evidence Act, when the language of a document is clear and is meant to refer to only one specific thing or person, but its application to the existing circumstances makes it unclear which particular thing or person it was intended to apply to, evidence can be presented to resolve this ambiguity.

Illustrations provided under this section further elucidate this principle:

(a) If A agrees to sell to B, for Rs. 1,000, "my white horse," but A happens to own two white horses, evidence can be introduced to demonstrate which of the two horses was intended to be sold.

(b) Similarly, if A agrees to accompany B to Hyderabad, evidence may be admitted to establish whether Hyderabad in the Deccan or Hyderabad in Sind was the intended destination.

Section 97

This section, grounded in the legal maxim "falsa demonstratio non nocet" (a false description does not vitiate), serves as an extension of the provision outlined in Section 95. Sections 95, 96, and 97 collectively address latent ambiguity within written instruments.

Section 95 states that when a description in a written instrument can potentially apply to multiple subjects with legal certainty, extrinsic evidence, including declarations of intention, can be admitted to establish which subject was intended by the author.

The rule of rejecting erroneous descriptions as not substantially important applies only when there is sufficient evidence to clearly discern the author's intention.

An illustration accompanying this section demonstrates its application: If A agrees to sell to B "my land at X in the occupation of Y," and A indeed owns land at X but not occupied by Y, while also possessing land occupied by Y but not at X, evidence can be presented to determine which property was intended to be sold.

Another common scenario occurs when land sold within specific boundaries is inaccurately described as containing a certain area; in such cases, the error in the area description is considered a mere misrepresentation and does not invalidate the deed.

Section 98

Section 98 of the Indian Evidence Act permits the presentation of evidence to elucidate the meaning of illegible or not commonly understood characters, including foreign, obsolete, technical, local, and provincial expressions, as well as abbreviations and words used in a specialised sense.

An illustration provided under this section demonstrates its application: If a sculptor agrees to sell to B, "all my models," and the sculptor possesses both models and modelling tools, evidence can be admitted to establish which items were intended to be sold.

Therefore, oral evidence is permissible to clarify artistic words and symbols used in a document.

Section 99

Section 99 pertains to the admissibility of evidence by non-parties. According to this section, individuals who are not parties to the document in question, or their representatives-in-interest, are permitted to provide evidence of any fact indicating a contemporaneous agreement that alters the terms of the document.

It's noteworthy that parties to a document or their representatives-in-interest are typically barred from presenting evidence of a contemporaneous agreement that modifies the document's terms, as stated in Section 92.

However, Section 99 allows a third party to introduce evidence of such an oral agreement if it impacts their interests.

An illustration accompanying Section 99 illustrates its operation: Suppose A and B enter into a written contract stipulating that B will sell A certain quantity of cotton to be paid for upon delivery.

Simultaneously, they make an oral agreement that A will be granted three months' credit. While this oral agreement cannot be shown between A and B, it may be demonstrated by C if it affects C's interests.

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