Trending: Call for Papers Volume 4 | Issue 4: International Journal of Advanced Legal Research [ISSN: 2582-7340]



In the complex world of contract law, agreement enforceability is essential for fairness and stability in business and employment partnerships. In non-compete, non-solicitation, and other restrictive covenants, contracts often overreach or impose unfair restrictions. If too broad or oppressive, these terms might create enforceability concerns and invalidate agreements. These issues can be addressed pragmatically by the Blue Pencil Rule, rooted in English and American law. It permits courts to remove unenforceable contract elements while preserving valid provisions, maintaining the contractual connection and respecting the parties’ intentions.

The Blue Pencil Rule relies on severability, a contract law theory that allows the execution of legal clauses without discarding the entire agreement due to flawed or illegal terms. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, the Blue Pencil Doctrine allows courts to amend contracts by striking out unenforceable elements and keeping the enforceable ones as long as the contract retains the parties’ purpose. This idea keeps legally valid parts of an agreement in operation even if provisions are void or unenforceable.

Restrictive covenants are affected by the doctrine. Non-compete clauses in employment contracts protect a company’s legitimate economic interests by preventing former employees from starting competitive businesses. These restrictions might drastically hinder professional progress and job search. Courts can reasonably adjust non-compete treaties under the Blue Pencil Rule to protect employers’ interests without limiting employees’ livelihoods. This balance is essential for fair employment and job growth. Blue Pencil Rule enforces corporate contracts. Without restraint, broad or inappropriate clauses could void contracts and cause major losses or difficulties. For stability and predictability in corporate dealings, the rule allows courts to eliminate extraneous terms from basic agreements, making them enforceable.

This paper explores the Blue Pencil Rule’s history and implementation in modern contract law. It will examine how this concept ensures contractual fairness and enforceability, notably in restrictive covenants. This paper analyses judicial interpretations and practical applications of the Blue Pencil Rule to demonstrate its importance in contract integrity in today’s complicated legal and corporate situations also it will shed light on Red Pencil and purple Pencil Rule. 

Historical Background of the Blue Pencil Rule

This rule was initially established in the case of Nordenfelt v. Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Co. Ltd[i]., in which the court metaphorically ran a blue pencil over a portion of a covenant.

Lord M.R. Sterndale employed the term “blue pencil” in Attwood v. Lamont[ii]to underscore that courts have the authority to sever portions of a contract that are excessive in terms of area, subject matter, or customer classes, provided that such restrictions are articulated as separate negative obligations.The applicability of the doctrine of blue pencil varies among states, with some adopting a strict approach (allowing only the striking out of overbroad provisions) and others adopting a liberal approach (allowing the rewriting of overbroad provisions).

In Mason v. Provident Clothing and Supply Co. Ltd[iii]., it was observed that blue pencil severance should be employed sparingly and only when the portion being removed is plainly severable, trivial, and not a component of the primary purpose of the restrictive covenant.

The blue pencil rule’s applicability was evaluated using a three-fold test:

  1. the provision that is unenforceable can be removed without altering the remaining text.
  2. the remaining provisions are still substantiated by sufficient consideration, and
  3. the severance does not significantly alter the parties’ bargain.

Lord Bridge in Daymond v. South West Water Authority[iv]proposed a test of substantial severability, while Lord Lowry in Dunkley v. Evans[v]asserted that textual severance is feasible only if it satisfies the substantial severance test. Various interpretations of the rule exist.

The blue pencil rule has been the subject of criticism, with certain courts asserting that it is inapplicable to unenforceable definitions within non-compete covenants, as the amendment would necessitate modifications to other contract provisions.

India’s application of the blue pencil doctrine is predicated on the Indian Contract Act, 1872, which stipulates that a contract is null and invalid if any portion of its consideration or object is unlawful[vi]. Section: 58. Alterative promise, one branch of which is illegal: If an alternative promise has two branches, one of which is legal and the other prohibited, only the legal branch can be enforced.These principle enables the differentiation of valid clauses from invalid ones within a contract.

Application Of Blue Pencil

Judicial Interpretations and Legal Contentions

The Blue Pencil Rule is essential in contract law for ensuring the enforceability of agreements, particularly in complex partnership deeds. It enables courts to eliminate invalid or unenforceable clauses while preserving the valid portions of the contract.

  1. Eliminating Illegal Clauses: Courts often use the Blue Pencil Rule to strike out unenforceable clauses from a partnership deed, thereby allowing the valid sections to stand. This rule is primarily about deleting problematic terms rather than modifying or adding to the contract. For instance, in Texco Marketing Pvt. Ltd. vs. Tata AIG General Insurance Co. Ltd.[vii] and Beed District Central Co-operative Bank Ltd. vs. State of Maharashtra[viii], courts emphasized that they can only remove unenforceable parts without altering the original agreement, thus preserving its integrity.
  2. Application to Entirely Void Contracts: The Blue Pencil Rule applies only to partially illegal or void contracts. It cannot salvage a contract that is void from the beginning (void ab initio). In cases like Indian Oil Officers’ Association vs. Indian Oil Corporation Ltd.[ix]and Shin Satellite Public Co. Ltd. vs. Jain Studios Limited[x], courts have clarified that while they can enforce separable, legal parts of a contract, they cannot reconstitute an entirely invalid agreement.
  3. Partnership Deeds with Minors: When a partnership deed includes minors as full partners, courts face the challenge of whether they can amend the deed to reflect an agreement solely among major partners. Generally, the Blue Pencil Rule does not apply to deeds that initially included minors in substantive roles. In Parekh Brothers vs. Kartick Chandra Saha[xi], courts ruled that a void deed involving minors cannot be retroactively validated by removing the minors and reallocating their responsibilities to their guardians.
  4. Interpreting Minors’ Roles: Courts are cautious about using the Blue Pencil Rule to reinterpret a partnership deed that initially included minors as full partners. If minors are listed with significant roles like capital contribution and management, altering their involvement fundamentally changes the agreement. In Singh Brothers & Co. vs. Commissioner of Income Tax[xii], the court upheld the original terms indicating full partnership roles for minors, resisting modifications that would create a new agreement contrary to the parties’ initial intentions.
  5. Substantive Changes to Documents: The Blue Pencil Rule allows for the removal of insensible or repugnant words to correct minor errors without altering the document’s original meaning. However, it does not support substantive changes that would significantly modify the contract’s nature. In Commissioner of Income Tax, West Bengal vs. Khetan and Co.[xiii], the court refused to make substantial alterations to the document’s terms, highlighting the limitations of the Blue Pencil Rule.

Case Study: Impact of Minors in Partnership Deeds:Consider a partnership deed where minors are full partners with responsibilities like contributing capital and participating in management. If legally challenged, such a deed may be deemed void ab initio because minors cannot hold these roles under partnership law. The Blue Pencil Rule cannot be used to merely delete the minors’ names or transfer their responsibilities to their guardians, as this would conflict with the original terms. For example, in XYZ Partnership vs. ABC Partners, attempts to modify the deed by excluding minors and attributing their roles to guardians were rejected because these changes would have fundamentally altered the original agreement. This case illustrates how the Blue Pencil Rule operates to excise unenforceable provisions without transforming the contract’s essential nature.

Comparison of Red Pencil, Blue Pencil, and Purple Pencil Doctrines

In the realm of judicial review and contract law, the doctrines of Red Pencil, Blue Pencil, and Purple Pencil stand as pivotal principles guiding courts in addressing legal deficiencies within statutes and agreements. These doctrines derive their names from the metaphorical actions akin to editing with colored pencils—red for striking out entirely, blue for excising the unenforceable while retaining the valid, and purple for judiciously rewriting to align with original intent.

Aspects Blue pencil rule Purple pencil rule Red pencil rule
Application Strikes out only the offending or unenforceable part Rewrites or reframes the provision to align with parties’ original intent


Entirely strikes down the entire provision or contract
Purpose Preserves valid parts of the provision or contract Modifies provisions to maintain enforceability while aligning with intent Ensures complete removal of illegal or unconstitutional provisions
Doctrine Basis Severability and partial enforceability Reframing to uphold intent without violating legal constraints Complete invalidity
Legal Application Used when the offending part is severable from the rest Applied when minor adjustments can salvage the entire provision Often used when offending part cannot be separated from the valid
Examples Non-compete clause with unenforceable scope is modified Contract provision is reworded to clarify intent without violating law Entire contract is void if any part is illegal
Indian Judicial Interpretations


Severs unconstitutional parts while upholding valid ones
Rewrites provisions to align with constitutional principles Invalidates the whole if any part is unconstitutional
Pros Maintains contractual relationships by preserving enforceable elements and intentions. Allows for a more nuanced approach, preserving the substance of the agreement and fairness between parties. Ensures complete legal clarity by removing any potential for partial enforcement of invalid agreements.
Cons May not always preserve the full intent of the parties if significant parts of the contract are removed. Risk of judicial overreach and potential alteration of the original agreement’s essence. Can lead to overly harsh outcomes by voiding entire agreements over minor issues.
Cases Sunil Kumar Singhal v. Vinod Kumar (2017)[xiv] – Applied blue pencil to strike out unenforceable arbitration terms. Union Construction Co. (P) Ltd. v. Chief Engineer (1960)[xv] – Reformed arbitration clause to reflect original intent. Indian Oil Officers’ Association v. Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. (2008) – Entirely void contracts cannot be salvaged.


Statutory References Guided by the principles of the Doctrine of Severability as recognized under Section 57 and 58 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872. Based on judicial discretion to modify terms to align with statutory and contractual intentions. Courts rely on strict statutory interpretations and existing legal standards.


In conclusion, the Blue Pencil Rule is an essential component of modern legislation governing contracts. It makes it easier to enforce contracts by removing components that do not comply with the terms of the agreement. This helps to maintain the fundamental nature of the agreement while still honoring the parties’ initial intentions. When it comes to the management of restrictive covenants, this notion is especially important since it ensures that they continue to be fair and equitable. As contract law continues to develop, the Blue Pencil Rule will continue to play a critical role in establishing equitable and enforceable agreements. It will also continue to be an essential instrument for navigating the intricacies of current legal and corporate landscapes. The prudent implementation of this principle guarantees that contracts accomplish their intended goal without going beyond their bounds or infringing upon the rights and interests of the organizations that are involved.

End Notes/ References

[i](Nordenfelt (Pauper) V Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company, Ltd, n.d.)

[ii] All Answers ltd, ‘Attwood v Lamont – 1920’ (Lawteacher.net, June 2024)

[iii] All Answers ltd, ‘Mason v Provident Clothing & Supply Co Ltd’ (Lawteacher.net, June 2024)

[iv](Daymond V South West Water Authority; Daymond V Plymouth City Council, n.d.)

[v](Evans V. Dunkley, n.d.)

[vi]Section 24 of Indian contract Act, 1875

[vii](M/S Texco Marketing Pvt Ltd Vs Tata AIG General Insurance Company Ltd &Or’s (Supreme Court) – Digest of Case Laws, n.d.)

[viii]AIR ONLINE 2006 SC 238

[ix] W.P. No. 10016 (W) of 2015

[x]AIR 2006 SUPREME COURT 963, 2006






Written by: Aisha Adil– Student of Anjuman-I-Islam’s Barrister A.R. Antulay College of Law

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