Interpretation: Concept, Meaning and Object of Interpretation
Interpretation is the method by which the true sense or the meaning of a word is
understood. It is not the meaning of an ordinary word of the English language
which is not a question of law but it is the art of finding out the true sense
of enactment by giving the words of the enactment their natural and ordinary
The question of law is its proper construction and the purpose of the
interpretation of a legal statute is to unlock the locks put by the legislature.
For such unlocking, keys are to be found out. According to Gray, the process
by which a judge (or indeed any person, lawyer or layman, who has an occasion
to search for the meaning of a statute) constructs from words of a statute book,
a meaning which he either believes to be that of the legislature, or which
he proposes to attribute to it, is called 'interpretation'. Thus these keys may
be termed as aids for interpretation and principles of interpretation.
On the other hand, Salmond defines:
interpretation or construction as the process by which the courts seek to
ascertain the meaning of legislation through the medium of the authoritative
form in which it is expressed.
The age-old process of application of the enacted law has led to the formulation
of certain rules of interpretation. According to Cross:
"Interpretation is the process by which the courts determine the meaning of a
statutory provision for the purpose of applying it to the situation before
Some amount of interpretation is often necessary for any judicial matter
involving a legal statute. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and a
straightforward meaning whereas, on the other hand, there is some ambiguity or
vagueness in the words of a statute that must be resolved by the legal experts.
To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various tools and methods of
statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory
interpretation, legislative history, and purpose.
Justice Chakravarti made two observations in Badsha Mia v. Rajjab Ali
The primary object in interpreting a statute is always to discover the
intention of the legislature and in England because the rules of interpretation
developed there, can be relied on to aid the discovery because those whose task
is to put the intention of the legislature into language, fashion their language
with those very rules in view.
Since framers of statutes couch the enactments in accordance with the same rules
as the judicial interpreter apply, application of those rules in the analysis of
a statute naturally brings up the intended meaning to the surface. It is at
least doubtful whether, in a case of framers of Indian statutes of the present
times, especially of the provincial legislature, the same assumption can always
History and Emergence of the Rules of Interpretation
This age-old process of application of the enacted law has its roots spread
across the world wherever law prevails. In Australia and in the United States,
the courts have consistently stated that the text of the statute is used first,
and it is read as it is written, using the ordinary meaning of the words of the
The French philosopher Montesquieu (1689-1755) believed that courts should act
as "the mouth of the law", but soon it was found that some interpretation is
inevitable. Following, the German scholar Friedrich Carl von Savigny
(1779-1861) gave the four main interpretation methods:
- Grammatical Interpretation:
Using the literal meaning of the statutory text.
- Historical Interpretation:
Using the legislative history, to reveal the intent of the legislator.
- Systematic Interpretation:
Considering the context of provisions, if only by acknowledging in which
chapter a provision is listed.
- Teleological Interpretation:
Considering the purpose of the statute is considered, as it appears from
legislative history, or other observations.
It would be controversial to say that there exists a hierarchy between these
four interpretation methods.
Blackstone's Commentaries contained the most complete elaboration of metaphors
and that all judicial decision making involved the interplay between law and
equity. In the 19th Century, technicality was identified with professional
techniques of reasoning and the old rules of pleading; liberality with intuitive
justice, modem law, and magnanimity. In the Classical period of late
19th century and early 20th Century, intent played a critical role and the early
classical emphasis on legislative intent resulted in a heightened awareness of
the tension between literal and nonliteral interpretation.
Thus, these 2 sets
of principles for interpreting statutes emerged:
- One based on the classical notion of legislative intent and organized
interpretive rules along the tension between literal and nonliteral
interpretation, ultimately settling on intent, plain meaning, or the "Literal
According to the rule, the legislature must be deemed to have intended what it
has said and thus it is no part of the duty of the court to presume that the
legislature meant something other than that what is said. The words of the
statue are first understood in their natural, ordinary or popular sense and
phrases and sentences are construed according to their grammatical meaning
unless this leads to some absurdity. The intention of the legislature has
always to be gathered by words used by it, giving to the words their plain,
normal, grammatical meaning.
Justice S.R. Das in Jugalkishore Saraf vs. Raw
Cotton Co. Ltd. went on to say:
The cardinal rule of construction of statutes is to read the statute
literally, that is by giving to the words used by the legislature their
ordinary, natural and grammatical meaning. If, however, such a reading leads
to absurdity and the words are susceptible of another meaning the Court may
adopt the same. But if no, such alternative construction is possible, the
Court must adopt the ordinary rule of literal interpretation.
- The other utilized the pre-classical duality of technicality and
liberality and divided its interpretive rules along with the choice between
strict or liberal interpretation. Also known as the Golden Rule.
The Golden Rule is a modification of the Literal Rule. If there is an obvious
anomaly in the application of Law by natural/grammatical meaning, then the court
could interpret the law in such a way as to remove the anomaly.
Lord Wensleydale named it so and adopted it in the Grey vs Pearson
It is the universal rule
, that in construing statutes, as well as in construing all
other written instruments 'the grammatical and ordinary sense of the word is 'to
be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity, or some repugnance or
inconsistency with the rest of the instrument, in which case the grammatical and
ordinary sense of the words may be modified, so as to avoid that absurdity and
inconsistency, but no further.
The Mischief Rule or the 3rd Rule of Interpretation was laid down in Heydon's
 back in 1584 by Lord Coke. The rule directs that the courts must adopt
that construction which shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.
Another approach i.e. the Purposive interpretation is a derivation of mischief
rule and is intended to replace the mischief rule, the plain meaning rule and
the golden rule. Purposive interpretation is used when the courts use
extraneous materials from the pre-enactment phase of legislation, including
early drafts, Hansards, committee reports, and white papers.
When the language of a statute is clear, there is no need for the rules of
But in certain cases, more than one meaning may be derived from
the same word or sentence. It is, therefore, necessary to interpret the statute
to find out the real intention of the statute. The rules come into play only if
there is any doubt in regards to the express language used.
The 20th The century saw a progressive approach to interpretation on the basis
of equity as a legal concept. Equity became a Mediator between Classical
Formalism and Judicial Legislation.
Elaborate rules of interpretation also evolved at a very early stage of the
Hindu civilization. The rules given by Jaimini
, the author of Mimamsat Sutras,
originally meant for Srutis were employed for the interpretation of Smritis as
Understanding the Objective and Concept of Interpretation
Interpretation is a function of the court because of its role to apply the law.
But interpretation and application are two very different exercises. Where
Interpretation is always independent of the facts of any given case, the
application is always dependent on the facts of a given case. If the
language is clear and explicit, the court must give effect to it for, in that
case, the words speak the intention of the legislature and the court is
bound to attribute some meaning to it.
The necessity for Interpretation arise when:
- Meaning is not clear.
- Two different interpretations are possible and the parties prefer the
meaning beneficial to their interests.
- Legislative language may be complicated for a layman, and hence may
Lord Denning in Seaford Court Estates Ltd. vs. Asher
Knowledge is not an instrument of mathematical precision… It would certainly
save the judges from the trouble if the acts of parliament were drafted with
divine precision and perfect clarity. In the absence of it, when a defect
appears, a judge cannot simply fold a hand and blame the draftsman.
It is not within the human powers to foresee the manifold permutations and
combinations that may arise in the actual implementation of the act and also
provide for each one of them in terms free from all ambiguities. Hence the
interpretation of statutes becomes an ongoing exercise as newer facts and
conditions continue to arise.
The Objective of Interpretation is given in the Halsbury's Laws of England:
The objective of interpretation of a written document is to discover the
intention of the author and to ascertain the mind of the legislature. The
intention must be as near to the mind and apparent intentions of the parties as
possible, and as the law will permit.
The courts must avoid a head-on clash of seemingly contradicting provisions and
they must construe the contradictory provisions so as to harmonize them. The
provision of one section cannot be used to defeat the provision contained in
another unless the court, despite all its effort, is unable to find a way to
reconcile their differences. To harmonize is not to destroy any statutory
provision or to render it loose.
General Rules pertaining to Interpretation
In ascertaining and interpretation of a certain provision is any question
arises, the 3 rules that are to be applied are:
- Ex Visceribus Actus – The statute must be read as a whole in its
- Ut res magis valeat quam pareat – The statute is to be construed to make
it effective and workable.
- Casus Omissus - A situation omitted from or not provided for by statute
or regulation and therefore governed by the common law.
Aids used in the process of Interpretation
Several aids are used and they may statutory or non-statutory. Statutory aids
may be illustrated by the General Clauses Act, 1897 and the Interpretation Of
Statutes Act, 1957 and by specific definitions contained in individuals Acts
whereas non-statutory aids are illustrated by common law rules of interpretation
(including certain presumptions relating to interpretation) and also by
case-laws relating to the interpretation of statutes.
Aids may be also divided into 2 categories – Internal and External.
Internal Aids are those which are found within the statute such as:
- The long title of the statute
- The preamble of the statute
- Chapter Headings of the statute
- Marginal Notes to every section of the statute
- Illustrations given below the sections
- Saving Clauses and non-obstante Clauses
External Aids for interpretation are those which are not contained in the
statute but are found else-where such as:
- Historical background
- Statement of objects and reasons
- The original Bill as drafted and introduced
- Debates in the Legislature
- State of things at the time particular legislation was enacted
- Judicial construction
- Legal dictionaries
For the interpretation of international treaties, interpretation is governed by
the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, notably Articles 31–33. Some
states (such as the United States) are not a party to the treaty but recognize
that the Convention as a codification of customary international law.
set out in the Convention is essential that the text of a treaty is decisive
unless it either leaves the meaning ambiguous or obscure or leads to a result
that is manifestly absurd or unreasonable. Recourse to "supplementary means
of interpretation" is allowed only in that case, like the preparatory works,
also known by the French designation of travaux préparatoires.
According to Salmond:
The the essence of law lays in its spirit, nor in its
letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation
of the intention that underlies it. Nevertheless, in all ordinary cases, the
courts must be content to accept the litera legis as the exclusive and
conclusive evidence of the sententia legis.
They must, in general, take it
absolutely for granted that the legislature has said what it meant, and meant
what it has said. Ita scriptumest is the first principle of interpretation.
Judges are not at liberty to add to or take from or modify the letter of the law
simply because they have reason to believe that the true sententia legis is not
completely or correctly expressed by it.
The fairest and most rational method for interpreting a statute is by exploring
the intention of the Legislature through the most natural and probable signs
which are 'either the words, the context, the subject-matter, the effects and
consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law'.
Written By: Architi Batra
- State of Jammu and Kashmir vs. Thankur Ganga Singh  2 SCR 346
- Legal Bites, 'Introduction, Meaning and Nature of Interpretation', Mayank
Shekhar, April 2, 2017, Available at: https://www.legalbites.in/law-notes-interpretation-meaning-and-nature-of-interpretation/ (Last
visited on March 3, 2020)
- Gray, Nature and Sources of the Law, 2nd Edition, Pg. 176-78
- Salmond, Interpretation of Statutes, 11th Edition, Pg. 152
- Rupert Cross, Statutory interpretation, 3rd Edition, Pg.34
- AIR 1946 Cal 348
- Wikipedia, Statutory interpretation, United States, Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statutory_interpretation#United_States (Last
visited on March 3, 2020)
- William S. Blat, 1985, The History of Statutory Interpretation: A Study
in Form and Substance, University of Miami Law School, Available at https://repository.law.miami.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1601andcontext=fac_articles (Last
visited on March 3, 2020)
- Crawford vs Spooney, 1846 1IV MQORE IND. UP. 179
- Justice Das Gupta, Madadeolal Kanodia vs Administrator General of W.B,
LAWS(SC) – 1960 -4-31
- AIR 1955 Bom 77
- UOI vs. Filip Tiogo De Gama, 1990 AIR 981 1989
- HL 9 Mar 1957
- (1584) 76 ER 637
- Driedger, E.A. Construction of Statutes. Butterworth and Co. (Canada) Ltd.,
1983, Pg. 87
- Pandian Chemicals Ltd. vs. CIT,  254 ITR 562
- Supra 9 on Page 7
- Law Commission of India, 60th Report, Chapter 2, Para 2.2
- Sudevananda vs State through CBI (2012) 3 SCC 387
- Warburton vs Loveland, (1828) Hud and Brooke 632, 648
- 2 K.B. 481, 499
- Hello Counsel, Interpretation Of Statutes, Available at http://www.hellocounsel.com/interpretation-of-statutes/ (Last
visited on March 3, 2020)
- Supra 7 of Page 7
- Jurisprudence, 11th Edition, Pg. 152.
- Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 1, Pg.59
is a fourth-year law student at
Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, GGSIPU