The Supreme Court on Tuesday cautioned courts and judicial authorities against the use of free online sources like Wikipedia.
A bench comprising Justices Surya Kant and Vikram Nath also asked the courts to urge their lawyers to rely on more authentic and reliable sources than Wikipedia. As the online encyclopedia is a crowdsourced encyclopedia with user-generated edits.
The Court made this observation after noting that in the case before it. The Commissioner of Customs (Appeals) and the Bombay Customs, Excise and Service Tax Appellate Tribunal (CESTAT) had relied on Wikipedia to support their findings.
“While we expressly recognize the utility of such platforms that provide free access to knowledge worldwide. We must also sound a caution against the use of such sources for the resolution of legal disputes. We say this for the reason that these sources, despite being a treasure trove of knowledge, are based on a crowdsourced and user-generated publishing model. That is not entirely reliable in terms of academic veracity. And may promote misleading information as has been pointed out by this court on previous occasions as well.”
The Supreme Court thus overturned a CESTAT order. That had held that desktops weighing less than 10 kilograms should be classified as “laptops”. And would be subject to higher customs duties than other computers.
The appellant companies had appealed to the Supreme Court after the West Zonal Bench of CESTAT upheld the orders of the lower officials. Which had effectively meant that their imported desktops could not benefit from the lower customs duties available for heavier processing units.
The companies’ lawyers pointed out that the 10 kg limit applied to laptops. And not to products that could not function without an external power supply.
The aspect of functionality and the ease of transport of the goods should also be taken into account in determining functionality, it was argued.
In addition, it was argued that the explanatory notes of the Harmonized System of the World Customs Organization also do not classify desktop computers as portable, so the dictionary meaning of the term could not be relied upon.
Counsel even demonstrated the articles before the Court to bolster her arguments.
Counsel for the defendants argued that since portability is not defined in the statute in question (Excise Act). It should be interpreted according to the principle of general language.
Mathuram Agrawal vs State of MP
Relying on the decision in Mathuram Agrawal vs State of MP. He added that the intent of the legislature must be discerned solely from the plain meaning of the language used in the tax statutes.
First, the Court stated that the argument for an external power supply to be functional was not applicable as it was nowhere contemplated.
It was held that the word “portable” should not have been defined based on the dictionary meaning. Which may contain all sorts of shades of associated implications, as has been held in the decision in CCE v Krishna Carbon Paper Co.
The high court explained when a desktop computer can be considered portable.
“The first ingredient is its ability to be easily transported, which includes all aspects, such as weight and its dimensions. We should hasten to add that, in appropriate cases, this assessment would also take into account accessories necessary for safe and efficient use, such as mounted stands or power adapters. The second ingredient is that the ADP must be suitable for a consumer’s daily transit. And would include aspects such as durability to withstand frequent travel and protection against damage. An example of this would be the availability of protective covers.”
Neither criterion applied to the appellants’ desktops, given their dimensions and lack of covers. Which means they cannot be easily transported, the court noted.
“The dimensions of the goods in question make them illogical and unfeasible for everyday transit,” the court said.
Therefore, portability cannot be the only factor in determining the portability of a good. The ruling noted, stressing that courts need to be aware of the effect of technological advances on the law.
“Scientific advances have greatly reduced the weight associated with high performance in the context of PDAs. Not surprisingly, the advent of LED technology, faster microchips, etc. Has made it possible for cell phones to have performance specifications that just a decade ago were only possible in high-end laptops. We must therefore be aware of such an impact on the consumer’s understanding of any good or trade.”
The Court took a brief trip back in time when referring to luggables (heavy personal computers).
“They used to weigh more than 10 kilograms. These ancient predecessors of laptop computers were designed at the time to be portable. And used to fold neatly into a box with a handle. Despite their weight and a size comparable to a small suitcase, they could be transported, albeit without a wagon.”
The appeals were therefore upheld. And the defendants were ordered to apply the law applicable to general processing units to the products in question.
The Court clarified that the appellants’ self-assessment of the nature of their goods should be accepted, as the burden of proof to find. Otherwise rested on the customs department, and the latter had failed to do so.
Advocates V Lakshmikumaran, Charanya Lakshmikumaran, Mounica Kasturi, Apeksha Mehta and Pranav Mundra represented the appellants.
Advocate Arijit Prasad and advocates Rupesh Kumar, Adit Khorana, OP Shukla, Sunita Sharma, Raj Bahadur Yadav and Mukesh Kumar Maroria represented the appellees.
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