The term Interpretation has been derived from the Latin term interpretari which means to explain or understand. Every statute has to be
interpreted by the judge the way it is meant to be understood.
The purpose of interpretation is always to find out what the statute stands for,
what is the defect it intends to remove and what is the remedy it seeks to
advance. The basic principle of the construction of statutes is that, the
words have to be read and understood in their true literal sense. The Literal
Rule is the first rule applied by the judges. The literal rule is also called grammatical
rule by some jurists.
The literal rule means that a judge has to consider what
the statute says ‘literally’, i.e its simple plain meaning without any
ambiguity. It is said that the words themselves best declare the intention of
the law- givers.
The interpretation or construction means the process by
which the courts seek to ascertain the intent of the Legislature through the
medium of the authoritative form in which it is expressed. In the literal
rule of interpretation, the law has to be considered as it is and the judges
cannot go beyond ‘litera legis’. The literal interpretation is a means to
ascertain the ’ratio legis’ of the statute.
In the literal rule, the intention of the parliament while framing the statute,
is the ordinary meaning of the words used. Justice Jervis, has described the
meaning of literal rule in Abley v Gale. Lord Diplock observed in
Steel Ltd v Sirs that:
Where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not then
for the judges to invent fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give
effect to its plain meaning because they consider the consequences for doing so
would be inexpedient, or even unjust or immoral.
words of a statute are to be first understood in their natural, ordinary or
popular sense and phrases and sentences are construed according to their
grammatical meaning, unless that leads to some absurdity or unless there is
something in the context, or in the object of the statute to suggest the
No judge can deviate from the meaning of the statute though
decision maybe unjust. The words of a statute must prima facie be given their
The literal rule accepts supremacy of the Parliament: the right to make laws,
even though sometimes, they seem absurd. In the literal rule of interpretation,
there is no contrary meaning within the statute.
Where there is no ambiguity in
words, the question of intention ought not to be admitted. The words are
plain and clear under literal rule. The literal rule helps the judge in
administering justice in a neutral manner.
When the language of the statute is
clear and unambiguous it is not necessary to look into the legislative intent or
object of the Act. The literal rule puts a virtual boundary upon the judges
from not deviating from the ordinary or literal meaning of the words used in the
When the language of the statute is uncertain or ambiguous on then the judge
have the duty to interpret. The literal rule appreciates precision and certainty
which help the reduction of litigation.
The judges have to act upon the true intention of the legislature. The judges
have no liberty to modify the law even if they feel that the true intention of
the legislature have not been expressed rightly in the law.
Though literal interpretation must be accepted, it should not be followed if the
statute is defective.
The advantages of the literal rule:
- The literal rule enables the common man to understand the statue.
- The intent of the legislature is simple and clear.
- The literal rule respects the parliamentary supremacy in administration
- Under literal rule the law is quite predictable.
The dis-advantages of the literal rule:
- The literal rule can lead to unreasonable decision making.
- The English language is ambiguous.
- The application of literal meaning in all situations and circumstances
is not possible.
- The rule expects standards of unattainable perfection from the
The rules to be followed in literal rule of interpretation of statutes:
Ejusdem Generis is where general words follow anenumeration
of persons or things, by words of a particular and specific meaning, such
general words are not to be construed in their widest extent, but are to be held
as applying only to persons or things of the same general kind or class as those
specifically mentioned. Ejusdem Generis means assuming general meaning of
words or words similar kind.
Casus Omissus means cases omitted. Casus omissus also means a
point not provided by the statute. It is basically a situation not provided for
by a statute or contract and therefore governed by case-law or new-judge made
law. It is a canon of construction, requiring the court to draw up
principles of statutory construction, which are then going to be followed by
subsequent judges in their judicial decisions.
Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius:
Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius
means that one thing having been mentioned the other is excluded. Lopes, L.J
opines this maxim means a valuable servant but a dangerous master. Expressio
unius est exclusio alterius, it is a maxim for ascertaining the intention of the
legislature. Where the statutory language is plain and the meaning clear, there
is no scope for applying the rule.
Criticisms of literal rule of interpretation of statutes:
Literal rule claim that it rests on the erroneous assumption that words have a
fixed meaning. The literal rule of interpretation leads to injustice. There are
chances of creating misleading precedents while deciding cases. The courts do
not have the power to alter the words of the legislature, it is not open for
judicial innovations. The words cannot be understood properly without the
context in which it is used.
The strict adherence to this principle may cause
injustice and sometimes it might give results which are quite contrary to
general intention of statute or common sense. Due to the absurdity that is
prevalent in literal rule of interpretation, the court may ascertain a literal
meaning which was not intended by the legislature. If the court applies literal
rule and feels that the interpretation is morally wrong then they cannot avoid
giving the interpretation.
With changing and adopting of new policies and
legislature, the statutes cannot be interpreted in their traditional way i.e,
taking the literal meaning of the words used. Hence these make literal rule not
suitable to present situation.
Cases studies relating to literal rule of interpretation of statute:
R v. Harris (1863) 7C
In this case, the defendant bit the plaintiff’s nose. The statute made it an
offence 'to stab cut or wound' the court held that under the literal rule the
act of biting did not come within the meaning of stab cut or wound as these
words implied an instrument had to be used. Therefore the defendant was
Fisher v. Bell (1961) 1 QB 394
In this case, the defendant displayed flick knife with price tag in his
shop. The statute made it a criminal offence to 'offer' such flick knives for
sale. His conviction was quashed as goods on display in shops are not 'offers'
in the technical sense but an invitation to treat. The court applied the literal
rule of statutory interpretation in this case.
CIT v. T. V Sundaram Iyyengar (1975) 101 I.T.R 764 SC
The meaning of Literal Rule was given in this case as, "If the language of the
statute is clear and unambiguous, the Court cannot discard the plain meaning,
even if it leads to an injustice."
Keshavji Ravji and Co. v. CIT (1990) Taxmann 87 SC
The meaning of literal rule is stated that, As long as there is no ambiguity in
the statutory language, resort to any interpretative process to unfold the
legislative intent becomes impermissible.
- Seventilal Maneklal Seth v. Commissioner of Income Tax (Central)
Bombay. (1968) 2 SCJ 129
- Special Deputy Collector, LA Unit v. Dasari Ramulu 2001 AIHC 387 (AP).
- Deepak Jain, ‘Interpretation of Statutes: A Treatise’ ,
- 20 L. J. C. P (N. S) 233 
- QBD 1980
- Crawford v. Spooner, (1846) 4 MIA 179
- Oriental Insurance Ltd Co. v. Sardar Sadhu Singh, AIR 1994 Raj 44.
- Paulus, Roman Jurist
- Arul Nadar v. Authorised Officer, Land Reforms (1998) 7 SCC 157
- Black’s Law Dictionary (8th Edition)
- Garner, Bryan, Black’s Law Dictionary, West Publishing Co.USA, 9th
Edition, 2009 at pg. 247.
- Construction, Interpretation and Ambiguity, Arani Chakrabarty,
- Coluhoun v. Brooks (1886)21 Q.B.D 52
- Parbhani Transport Coop. Society v. Regional Transport Authority, AIR
1960 SC 801: (1960) 3 SCR 177
- P. Ramanathan Aiyer, Law Lexicon 2nd Edition
- Justice G.P Singh, ‘PRINCIPLES OF STATUTORY INTERPRETATION’ 11th