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Emergence of the Rules of Interpretation of Statues

Interpretation: Concept, Meaning and Object of Interpretation

Interpretation is the method by which the true sense or the meaning of a word is understood.[1] 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 meaning.[2]

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[3], 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[4] 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[5]:
"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 them."

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[6] -
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 be made.

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 statute.[7]

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[8]:
  1. Grammatical Interpretation:
    Using the literal meaning of the statutory text.
  2. Historical Interpretation:
    Using the legislative history, to reveal the intent of the legislator.
  3. Systematic Interpretation:
    Considering the context of provisions, if only by acknowledging in which chapter a provision is listed.
  4. 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.[3]

Thus, these 2 sets of principles for interpreting statutes emerged:
  1. 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 Rule."

    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.[10] The intention of the legislature has always to be gathered by words used by it, giving to the words their plain, normal, grammatical meaning.[11]

    Justice S.R. Das in Jugalkishore Saraf vs. Raw Cotton Co. Ltd.[12] 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.
  2. 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.[13]

Lord Wensleydale named it so and adopted it in the Grey vs Pearson[14] case:
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 Case[15] 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.[16] 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 interpretation.

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.[17]

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.[18]

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 well.[19]

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.[20] 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[21] and the court is bound to attribute some meaning to it.

The necessity for Interpretation arise when:

  1. Meaning is not clear.
  2. Two different interpretations are possible and the parties prefer the meaning beneficial to their interests.
  3. Legislative language may be complicated for a layman, and hence may require interpretation.

Lord Denning in Seaford Court Estates Ltd. vs. Asher[22] said:
English 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:
  1. Ex Visceribus Actus – The statute must be read as a whole in its context.
  2. Ut res magis valeat quam pareat – The statute is to be construed to make it effective and workable.
  3. 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.[23]

Internal Aids are those which are found within the statute such as:

  1. The long title of the statute
  2. The preamble of the statute
  3. Chapter Headings of the statute
  4. Marginal Notes to every section of the statute
  5. Punctuations
  6. Illustrations given below the sections
  7. Definitions
  8. Provisos
  9. Explanation
  10. 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:

  1. Historical background
  2. Statement of objects and reasons
  3. The original Bill as drafted and introduced
  4. Debates in the Legislature
  5. State of things at the time particular legislation was enacted
  6. Judicial construction
  7. Legal dictionaries
  8. Commonsense
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.

The rule 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.[24]

According to Salmond[25]:
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'.[26]

  1. State of Jammu and Kashmir vs. Thankur Ganga Singh [1960] 2 SCR 346
  2. Legal Bites, 'Introduction, Meaning and Nature of Interpretation', Mayank Shekhar, April 2, 2017, Available at: (Last visited on March 3, 2020)
  3. Gray, Nature and Sources of the Law, 2nd Edition, Pg. 176-78
  4. Salmond, Interpretation of Statutes, 11th Edition, Pg. 152
  5. Rupert Cross, Statutory interpretation, 3rd Edition, Pg.34
  6. AIR 1946 Cal 348
  7. Wikipedia, Statutory interpretation, United States, Available at (Last visited on March 3, 2020)
  8. Ibid.
  9. William S. Blat, 1985, The History of Statutory Interpretation: A Study in Form and Substance, University of Miami Law School, Available at (Last visited on March 3, 2020)
  10. Crawford vs Spooney, 1846 1IV MQORE IND. UP. 179
  11. Justice Das Gupta, Madadeolal Kanodia vs Administrator General of W.B, LAWS(SC) – 1960 -4-31
  12. AIR 1955 Bom 77
  13. UOI vs. Filip Tiogo De Gama, 1990 AIR 981 1989
  14. HL 9 Mar 1957
  15. (1584) 76 ER 637
  16. Driedger, E.A. Construction of Statutes. Butterworth and Co. (Canada) Ltd., 1983, Pg. 87
  17. Pandian Chemicals Ltd. vs. CIT, [2002] 254 ITR 562
  18. Supra 9 on Page 7
  19. Law Commission of India, 60th Report, Chapter 2, Para 2.2
  20. Sudevananda vs State through CBI (2012) 3 SCC 387
  21. Warburton vs Loveland, (1828) Hud and Brooke 632, 648
  22. 2 K.B. 481, 499
  23. Hello Counsel, Interpretation Of Statutes, Available at (Last visited on March 3, 2020)
  24. Supra 7 of Page 7
  25. Jurisprudence, 11th Edition, Pg. 152.
  26. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 1, Pg.59
Written By: Architi Batra is a fourth-year law student at Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, GGSIPU

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