File Copyright Online - File mutual Divorce in Delhi - Online Legal Advice - Lawyers in India

Literal Rule of Interpretation of Statutes: Important Features, Advantages and Limitations

The literal rule of interpretation of statutes gives preference to the precise language used in a statute or law under scrutiny. It requires that the words be given their ordinary, grammatical, and literal meaning, without considering the broader intentions of lawmakers or potential ramifications.

In accordance with this rule, if a term does not have a specific definition in a statute, it must be interpreted according to its plain, ordinary, and literal meaning. Even if the result is harsh and undesirable or differs from the legislature's intent, the clear meaning of the word must prevail.

The literal rule reflects what the law states rather than what it intends. It is the oldest rule of interpretation and remains in use today, mainly because judges are not meant to make laws. Since there is always a risk that a particular interpretation may amount to creating law, some judges prefer to stick to the literal wording of the law.

When the language of a statute is unambiguous, clear, or straightforward, meaning that it can reasonably be interpreted in only one way, the courts must uphold that interpretation regardless of the consequences.

The literal rule of interpretation is a legal principle that dictates that when interpreting a law, one must strictly adhere to the exact wording of the statute and give the words their ordinary meaning, without taking into account any broader intentions.

To illustrate, let's consider a law that states: 'No vehicles allowed in the park.'

Under the literal rule, if someone were to ride a bicycle into the park, they could argue that a bicycle does not fall under the definition of a 'vehicle' as it is not a car or motorbike. Therefore, they may claim that they have not violated the law because the statute only mentions 'vehicles' and does not explicitly include bicycles.

However, a strict literal interpretation may not fully capture the true intent of the lawmakers. In this scenario, the legislators likely intended to prohibit any form of transportation in the park in order to ensure safety and preserve the environment. Therefore, even though bicycles are not explicitly listed as 'vehicles,' the broader intention of the law suggests that riding a bicycle in the park would still be prohibited.

This example demonstrates how the literal rule of interpretation focuses narrowly on the literal meaning of the words in the statute and may lead to outcomes that do not align with the broader intentions or purposes of the law.
Important Features:
  • The literal rule of construction dictates that statutes must be interpreted literally, meaning the words must be understood in their plain, clear, and unambiguous sense.
  • If the language is unambiguous, it must be given effect without any changes.
  • If the plain meaning cannot be determined, the preamble may be consulted.
  • It should be noted that strict construction cannot supersede literal interpretation.
  • Under the literal rule of construction, the statute must be interpreted according to its literal and grammatical meaning, regardless of any potential outcomes.
  • According to advocates of the literal rule, it serves to avoid judicial bias in matters of legislation and politics.
  • The reliance on primary sources is the most reliable approach, as the general public and legal professionals may not have ready access to supplementary materials.
  • This approach also promotes accuracy in the drafting process.
  • The meaning of words is not always concrete and may not convey a straightforward message.
  • It disregards the confines of language.
  • As the interpretation should be clear and comprehensible, those responsible for drafting the law are expected to achieve complete precision.
  • Judges have tended to interpret the words strictly without considering the broader context.
  • One drawback is its potential rigidity and inflexibility, as it fails to consider changes in societal norms, technological advancements, or unforeseen circumstances. This lack of adaptability can result in interpretations that do not align with the intentions of lawmakers or the realities of modern society.
  • The literal rule can produce absurd or unjust outcomes when applied to ambiguous or evolving language. Its strict adherence to the literal meaning of words can sometimes defy common sense or go against the underlying purpose of the legislation.
  • The literal rule may conflict with legislative intent by prioritizing the literal meaning of words over the broader objectives of the law. This can occur when a strict interpretation results in outcomes that contradict the legislative purpose or the intentions of the lawmakers.
  • Legal language is often complex and technical, making it challenging to determine the precise literal meaning of certain terms or phrases. This complexity can create difficulties when applying the literal rule and may lead to inconsistent or unpredictable outcomes.

Court Judgments:
  • The case of Tata Motors Limited v. Pimpri Chinchand Municipal Corporation, 2006 (5) Bom CR 1, Mh Lj 660 established that when the meaning of a statute is evident from its literal and grammatical interpretation, the court should adhere to it.
  • In Cheeseman v. DPP (1990), the defendant was charged with 'obstructing a police officer in the execution of his duty in a street or public place.' The court interpreted 'street' to include private property open to the public, expanding the literal meaning to uphold the purpose and spirit of the law.
  • Similarly, in Shin-Etsu Chemical Company Limited v. Aksh Optifibre Limited, SCC 2005 (6) 418 at 445, it was held that the court should strive to give effect to all the words used in the statute.
  • In Whiteley v Chappell (1868), the defendant was charged with 'personating any person entitled to vote.' The strict adherence to the literal rule resulted in the defendant being acquitted, as it was determined that a deceased person could not be considered a 'person.' This case highlights the importance of adhering to the literal meaning of words in a statute.
  • The case of M.V. Joshi v. M.V. Shimpi, AIR 1961 SC 1494, 1961 SCR (3) 986, which pertained to the Food and Adulteration Act, raised a question about whether the Act applies to butter made from curd. However, the Supreme Court ruled that the term 'butter' in the Act is unambiguous and must be interpreted in its plain and ordinary sense. Thus, butter made from both milk and curd would fall under the scope of the Act.
  • In Budhan Choudry v. State of Bihar, AIR 1955 SC 191, 1955 SCR (1) 1015, the Supreme Court held that when the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, it must be given effect to.
  • In J.P. Bansal v. State of Rajasthan, 2003, the Supreme Court observed that the primary intention of the legislature should be derived from the language used in the statute, including what has been said and what has not been said.
  • In R v. Maginnis (1987), the defendant was charged with 'handling stolen goods.' The literal interpretation of 'handling' was used, which led to the conclusion that the defendant had not physically handled the goods, but was aware of their existence. Despite this, the court still found the defendant guilty, by applying the principle that narrow or technical interpretations should not defeat the purpose of the law.
  • During the case of Fisher v. Bell (1960), the court's decision declared that displaying goods in a store window with a price tag did not constitute the criminal act of 'offering for sale.' The court utilized the literal rule of interpretation, stating that the display of goods with a price tag was simply an invitation for customers to make an offer, rather than an actual offer that could be accepted. As a result, the defendant's actions were not considered illegal under the law, emphasizing the significance of strictly adhering to the exact wording of statutory language.
These examples illustrate how the literal interpretation rule is used in legal settings, emphasizing the significance of adhering to the precise language used in statutes or laws. However, it is important to note that this approach may sometimes result in outcomes that appear unfair or impractical, which is why alternative interpretative methods such as the golden or mischief rule are also employed to ensure a just and reasonable application of the law.

In conclusion, the literal rule of interpretation focuses on the precise wording of a statute, without taking into account the intentions of the lawmakers or potential consequences. However, in certain cases, the court may expand the literal meaning to ensure the purpose of the law is upheld.

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

Law Article in India

Ask A Lawyers

You May Like

Legal Question & Answers

Lawyers in India - Search By City

Copyright Filing
Online Copyright Registration


How To File For Mutual Divorce In Delhi


How To File For Mutual Divorce In Delhi Mutual Consent Divorce is the Simplest Way to Obtain a D...

Increased Age For Girls Marriage


It is hoped that the Prohibition of Child Marriage (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which intends to inc...

Facade of Social Media


One may very easily get absorbed in the lives of others as one scrolls through a Facebook news ...

Section 482 CrPc - Quashing Of FIR: Guid...


The Inherent power under Section 482 in The Code Of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (37th Chapter of t...

The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) in India: A...


The Uniform Civil Code (UCC) is a concept that proposes the unification of personal laws across...

Role Of Artificial Intelligence In Legal...


Artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing various sectors of the economy, and the legal i...

Lawyers Registration
Lawyers Membership - Get Clients Online

File caveat In Supreme Court Instantly