is the art or process of discovering and expounding the intended
signification of the language used in a statute, will, contract, or any other
written document, that is, the meaning which the author designed it to convey to
is a will of legislature conveyed in the form of text. The original
authority to make the laws lies within the hands of the legislature. Therefore,
the legislature is the highest competent authority to make the laws. The laws
are the strict rules and the guidelines made by the highest authority for anyone
and everyone with the subordinate authority. Laws will be followed and obeyed to
the best of its capacity if they are understood and interpreted in the right
Interpretation or construction of a statute is an age-old process and as old as
language. It is well settled principle of law that as the statute is an edict of
the Legislature, the conventional way of interpreting or construing a statute is
to seek the intention of legislature. The intention of legislature assimilates
two aspects; one aspect carries the concept of, meaning, i.e., what the word
means and another aspect conveys the concept of purpose and, object
reason or, spirit pervading through the statute. The process of construction,
therefore, combines both the literal and purposive approaches. However,
necessity of interpretation would arise only where the language of a statutory
provision is ambiguous, not clear or where two views are possible or where the
provision gives a different meaning defeating the object of the statute. [ii]
According to Blackstone
the fairest and 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
states that ‘Interpretation’is an art of finding out the true sense of
any form of words, i.e., the sense which their author intended to convey and of
enabling others to derive from them the same idea which the author intended to
“Words are like eyeglasses, they blur everything, which they do not make more
- Joseph Joubert
Judiciary as the interpreter of the law
The interpretation of a statute can be done through judicial Interpretation.
Judicial interpretation refers to different ways that the judiciary uses to
interpret the law, particularly constitutional documents and legislation. This
is an important issue in some common law jurisdictions such as the United
States, Australia and Canada, because the supreme courts of those nations can
overturn laws made by their legislatures via a process called judicial review. [iv]
According to Salmond interpretation or construction is the process by which the
courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of
authoritative forms in which it is expressed.” [v]
According to Salmond the duty of the judicature is to discover and to act upon
the true intention of the legislature under the Maxim, ‘sententia legis’ or mens.
The maxim Sententia legis or mens means that the essence of the law lies in the
spirit, and not in its letter, the letters are just the way to express the
intentions of the law makers. The words are the external manifestation of
intention that it involves. When there is possibility of one or more
interpretation of statute, courts have to adopt that interpretation which
reflects the ‘true intention of legislature’ which can also be considered as the
legal meaning statutory provisions.
As the first Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in McCulloch v. Maryland, a
constitution’s nature ‘requires that only its great outlines should be marked,
its important objects designated, and the minor ingredients which compose those
objects be deduced from the nature of the objects themselves.’ ACS promotes
methods of interpreting the Constitution that give full meaning to its values
and all of the guarantees it contains, so that it continues to serve the
American people for generations to come. [vi]
Noscitur a sociisis another legal maxim which means that the meaning of a word
may be known from accompanying words. Noscitur a sociis is a rule of
interpretation which is used to interpret an unclear statute where the true
intention of the ambiguous word is known from the accompanying words.
In R v Daoust 2004 SCC 6,Canada's Supreme Court stated that:
"Then oscitur a sociis rule ... the meaning of a term may be revealed by its
association with other terms where the latter may not be read in isolation.”
"The noscitur a sociis rule ... allows us to determine the meaning of a term
through its relation to other terms. However, this principle is normally
applied when interpreting terms in an enumeration." [vii]
Sir Edward Coke wrote in 1584, "The office of all judges is always to make
such construction as shall suppress the mischief, advance the remedy, and to
suppress subtle invention and evasions for Continuance of the mischief …
according to the true intent of the makers of the act" (Heydon's Case, 3 Co.
Rep. 7a, 76 Eng. Rep. 637 [King's Bench 1584]).[viii]
A Verbis legis non est recedendum is a legal maxim used in India with the
meaning that you must not vary the words of the statute while interpreting
it.[ix]The aim of interpretation of statutes is to determine the intention that
the legislature expresses to convey through the language used. If a statutory
law is open to more than one interpretation, the Court must choose the
interpretation which represents the true intention of the legislature.
According to J, A mechanical interpretation of the words and application of
legislature intent devoid of concept will make most of the remedial and
beneficent legislation futile (ineffective). Judiciary would mould or creatively
interpret legislation as they are finishers, refiners and polishers of
Canons of Construction, the system of basic rules and maxims applied by a court
to aid in its interpretation of a written document, such as a statute or
contract has been expounded.
When considering a statute, a court will apply rules of construction only when
the language contained in the statute is ambiguous. Courts have generally held
that a statute is ambiguous when reasonably well-informed persons could
understand the language in either of two or more senses (State ex rel. Neelen v.
Lucas, 24 Wis. 2d 262, 128 N.W.2d 425 ).
If a statute is found to be ambiguous, the court then applies a variety of
canons, or rules, to help it determine the meaning of the statute. Issues of
statutory construction are generally decided by the judge and not by the jury.
In interpreting statutes, a judge tries to ascertain the intent of the
legislature in enacting the law. By looking to legislative intent, the court
attempts to carry out the will of the law-making branch of the government. [xi]
To assist the courts in interpreting legislation, judges relied upon the literal
rule; dictated that the courts gave effect to the "ordinary and natural meaning"
of legislation. This Rule was defined by Higgins J, in The Amalgamated Society
of Engineers v The Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd (1920).
Justice Higgins said “The fundamental rule of interpretation, to which all
others are subordinate, is that a statute is to be expounded according to the
intent of the Parliament that made it; and that intention has to be found by an
examination of the language used in the whole of the statute as a whole. The
question is, what does the language mean; and when we find what the language
means in its ordinary and natural sense, it is our duty to obey that meaning,
even if we think the result to be inconvenient, impolitic or improbable”. [xii]
Purposive interpretation rule/ theory: Purposive theory is a theory of statutory
interpretation that holds that the Courts should interpret legislation in light
of the purpose behind the legislation. According to this theory Courts are not
want to bound by the text. It is a pragmatic approach or rather a functional
aspect of interpreting law, wherein deviation from literal rule is permitted for
the larger interest of the society.
Maxwellon Interpretation of Statutes (12th Edn., page 228), under the
caption' modification of the language to meet the intention'in the chapter
dealing with 'Exceptional Construction' states the position succinctly:
Where the language of a statute, in its ordinary meaning and grammatical
construction, leads to a manifest contradiction of the apparent purpose of the
enactment, or to some inconvenience or absurdity, hardship or injustice, which
can hardly have been intended, a construction may be put upon it which modifies
the meaning of the words, and even the structure of the sentence. This may be
done by departing from the rules of grammar, by giving an unusual meaning to
particular words, or by rejecting them altogether, on the ground that the
legislature could not possibly have intended what its words signify, and that
the modifications made are mere corrections of careless language and really give
the true meaning. Where the main object and intention of a statute are clear, it
must not be reduced to a nullity by the draftsman’s unskilfulness or ignorance
of the law, except in a case of necessity, or the absolute intractability of the
A Judge must be a jurist endowed with the legislator's wisdom, historian's
search for truth, prophet's vision, capacity to respond to the needs of the
present, resilience to cope with the demands of the future and to decide
objectively disengaging himself/herself from every personal influence or
predilections. Therefore, the judges should adopt purposive interpretation of
the dynamic concepts of the Constitution and the Act with its interpretative
armoury to articulate the felt necessities of the time.
General Rules of Interpretation, Internal Aids to Interpretation, External Aids
to Interpretation, Golden Rule, Mischief Rule, Subsidiary Rules and Harmonious
Construction are some of the most important rules.
Julius Stone in his book Legal System and Lawyer Reasoning(1964), page 216,
stated that: The task of interpretation of statue is of extracting, from the
formula, all that it contains of legal rules, with a view to adapting it, as
perfectly as possible, to the facts of life.
To quote Lord Reidin Australian Law Journal 221 (1955),
“All these canons of the construction give a lot of material for people who like
dealing with them, but I do not think they are more than guides, and guides
which take you a very short way.”
Moreover, with the passage of time, there may be changes in the meaning of
words. As has been stated, some words are confined to their history, while some
are starting points for history”
It is, of course, well recognised that interpretation is not merely a process of
spelling out the meaning by set guidelines. Sometimes, it has to partake of the
character of law-making. While the judiciary would not have much scope for
law-making, where the language is clear and all the purpose of statute is
definite, its scope for law-making is undisputed when the statue is itself
consciously delegates the creation of norms of the judiciary.
Morris Raphael Cohen in his essay Law and the Social Order pointed out, “You
cannot construct a building out of the rules of the architecture”.
As Judge Learned Hand said, “Of course, it is true that the words used, even
in their literal sense, are the primary, and ordinary the most reliable, source
of interpreting the meaning of any writing: be it a statute, a contract, or
anything else. But it is one of the surest indexes of a mature and developed
jurisprudence not to make a fortress out of the dictionary”.
The need for interpretation arises when the intention of the legislature
conveyed through the statute is not clear or vaguely defined.Michael Zander, a
British legal scholar in his book, The Law-Making Process has given three
reasons as to why statutory interpretation is necessary-
1.Complexity of statutes in regards to the nature of the subject, numerous
draftsmen and the blend of legal and technical language can result in
incoherence, vague and ambiguous language.
2.Anticipation of future events leads to the use of indeterminate terms. The
impossible task of anticipating every possible scenario also leads to the use of
indeterminate language. Judges therefore have to interpret statutes because of
the gaps in law. Examples of indeterminate language include words such as
“reasonable”. In this case the courts are responsible for determining what
constitutes the word “reasonable”.
3.The multifaceted nature of language. Language, words and phrases are an
imprecise form of communication. Words can have multiple definitions and
meanings. Each party in court will utilize the definition and meaning of the
language most advantageous to their particular need. It is up to the courts to
decide the most correct use of the language employed.
Constitution of India
The constitution of India is the supremist authority of law in India. It
embodies rights, powers, procedures, principles and duties of the government and
of the people. As stated by the Preamble, the constitution of India is of the
people by the people and for the people.
The constitution of India follows the theory of Separation of Power between the
three organs namely; The Legislature, The Executive And The Judiciary.
In his book The Spirit of The Laws’(1748),Montesquieuenunciated and explained
his theory of Separation of Powers. Montesquieu led the power to be expressed in
three organs of the State, namely, legislature, executive and the judiciary. The
duty of the legislature is to legislate. i.e., to make laws for anyone and
everyone under the jurisdiction of India. Judiciary is concerned with
application of these laws through real cases, while the executive enforces these
rules in the society.
Elaborate rules of interpretation were evolved even at a very early stage of the
Hindu civilization and culture. U.C. Sarkar, in his book, Epoche in Hindu Legal
History (1958), page 167 stated that:
The rules given by ‘Jaimini’, the author of Mimamsat Sutras, originally meant
for srutis were employed for the interpretation of Smritis also. All the
commentators and writers of Niband has in variably adopted these canons of
interpretation for their own purposes, so much so that these interpretations or
comments sometimes became more difficult and abstruse than the original texts
K.A. Nikanta Sastry, a distinguished scholar, has observed:
“With reference to the system of Jamini (Mimamsa) it has for its main object,
the determination of doubtful points in the elaborate rituals enjoined by
theVedasby discussion and interpretation. It raises and answers, incidentally,
some questions of great interest.”
The importance of avoiding literal interpretation was also stressed in various
ancient textbooks– “Merely following the texts of the law, decisions are not to
be rendered, for, if such decisions are wanting inequity, a gross failure
of Dharmais caused.”
According the the 60threport of The Law Commission of India, The Bhavishya
Purana has an apt verse dealing with the rule to be followed for the resolution
of conflict between Smriti and Artha as well as for the resolution of
inconsistency between the rules of the Smritis themselves. And Kalidasa has
described, in ringing words which have become immortal, the dissoluble link
between “word” and “meaning”. According toNarada, when Smritis and Artha shastra are
inconsistent, the presumption of Artha shastra is superseded by Smritis. In case
of mutual inconsistency, however, that rule is authentic which is in accord with
The interpretation was done by the scholars of the rules led by the ancient
manuscripts. But in today’s modern time, where every country has its own
constitution and set of rules, the interpretation of statutes is done either by
legislature or by the judiciary established.
In countries like India, the judiciary has been given great importance. The main
role of the judiciary is to interpret the provisions of the constitution for the
better understanding and evaluation of the statutes placed. Consensus ad idem of
the judiciary and the constitutional makers is an important factor for a
synchronized and successful evaluation of the interpretation of the laws.
James Bryce, the British ambassador to US in the American Commonwealth in
1888understood the role of judiciary in India to its deepest as he stated that-
“The supreme court is the living voice of the constitution – that is of the will
of people expressed in the fundamental laws they have enacted. It is the
conscience of the people. it is guarantee of the minority who when threatened by
the impatient vehemence of the majority, can appeal to this permanent law
finding the interpreter and enforcer thereof in a court set high above the
assault of the factions.”
General rules of interpretation of the Constitution-
1.If the words are clear and unambiguous, they must be given full effect.
2.The constitution must be read as a whole.
3.Principles of Harmonious construction must be applied.
4.The constitution must be interpreted in a broad and liberal sense.
5.The court has to infer the spirit of the constitution from the language.
6.Internal and External aids may be used while interpreting.
7.The Constitution prevails over other statutes.
Interpretation thus, is a familiar process of considerable significance. In
relation to statute law, interpretation is of importance because of the inherent
nature of legislation as a source of law. The process of statute making and the
process of interpretation of statutes take place separately from each other, and
two different agencies are concerned. An interpretation Act serves as the bridge
of understanding between the two.
Judicial determination of questions of law requires the use of materials of
various types, depending on the nature of the question. In the interpretation of
statutory provisions, the material used will naturally have a sharply legal
character, as distinct from the application of a general common law doctrine
where it may have a more diffused character. In statutes, greater precision is,
therefore, required. The process of interpretation is more legalistic and makes
more intensive use of the legal technique in statutory interpretation, as
contrasted with the application of common law rules.
There is always something which is behind the linguistic form, and which goes
deeper: and it is the function of interpretation to see that this is made
explicit. In this process (which is a process of finding out), we come to grips
with the subject in all its wealth of inter-relationships, and with particular
aspects which, perhaps, we never suspected to exist, though they are closely
bound up with the ideas.
A suggestion was made by the later Professor Acharya in his Tagore Law Lectures
on Codification in British India pages 189, 191, that the scope of the General
clauses Act should be extended so as to make it a comprehensive code on the
interpretation of statutes. This suggestion is no doubt, attractive at first
sight; but a close scrutiny will reveal its impracticability. It is not possible
to incorporate, in an interpretation act, the rules of interpretation enunciated
in the text book on the subject. One of the main reasons for having an
interpretation act is to facilitate the task of draftsman in preparing
parliamentary legislation. The courts also have resource to interpretation acts
to interpret statutes; but they do not confine themselves to these recourse to
interpretation acts to interpret statues; but they do not confine themselves to
these acts. They certainly take the aid to accept the rules of interpretation as
laid down in decided cases.
While interpreting the law, a degree of elasticity bestowed within the hands of
the judiciary is also important. This is so because the aims and ideas of the
legislation will be better achieved by the judicial interpretation keeping in
mind the ever-changing behaviour of the society, rather than by just sticking to
the rigid provision of the law. The judges in this sense, can examine and
understand the law in a better way and help in increasing the density of
Constitutional interpretation done through judiciary, have been reflected
through landmark case laws:
A Constitution Bench of five Judges of the Supreme Court in R.S. Nayak v A.R.
Antulay AIR 684, 1984 SCR (2) 495, it was held that-
“… If the words of the Statute are clear and unambiguous, it is the plainest
duty of the Court to give effect to the natural meaning of the words used in the
provision. The question of construction arises only in the event of an ambiguity
or the plain meaning of the words used in the Statute would be self-defeating.”
The purpose of Interpretation of Statutes is to help the Judge to ascertain the
intention of the Legislature– Not to control that intention or to confine it
within the limits, which the Judge may deem reasonable or expedient.
In Jugalkishore Saraf vs. Raw Cotton Co. Ltd AIR 376, 1955 SCR (1)1369.
it was observed-
“The cardinal rules of construction of statutes is to read the statutes
literally, that is by giving to the words their ordinary, natural and
grammatical meaning.If, however, such reading leads to absurdity and the words
are susceptible of author meaning, the court may adopt the same. But if no such
alternative construction is possible the court must adopt the ordinary rule of
literal In determining the meaning of any word or ordinary meaning of that word
or phrase in a statute, the first question to be asked is – “What is the natural
or ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute?It is
only when that meaning leads to some result which cannot reasonably be supposed
to have been the intention of the Legislature, that it is proper to look for
some other possible meaning of the word or phrase”.The context, as already
seen, in the construction of statutes, means the statute as a whole, the
previous state of the law, other statutes in pari materia, the general scope of
the statute and the mischief that it was intended to.
In Madan Mohan v K.Chandrashekara AIR 871, 1984 SCR (2) 894, it was held
When a statute contains strict and stringent provisions, it must be literally
and strictly construed to promote the object of the act.
In Keshav Mills Co. Ltd. v. CIT AIR 1965 SC 1636, p. 1644, in this
case-Enacted laws, especially the modern acts and rules, are drafted by legal
experts and it could be expected that the language used will leave little room
for interpretation or construction. But the experience of all those who have to
bear and share the task of application of the law has been different.
In Santi Swarup Sarkar v Pradeep Kumar Sarkar AIR 1997 Cal 197,the
Supreme Court held that –
If two interpretations are possible of the same statute, the one which validates
the statute must be preferred.Interpretation is the primary function function of
the court. The court interprets the legislature whenever a dispute arises before
the court. Since the will of the legislature is generally expressed in the form
of statutes, the prime concern of the court is to find out the intentions of the
legislature in the language used by the legislature in the statute.
Municipal Corpn of Delhi v. Laxmi Narain Tandon AIR 621, 1976 SCR
(2)1050,in this case-
The definition of ‘sale’ in the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 was
construed in the sense having regard to the mischief intended to be remedied. It
was held that the ‘sale’ in the Act would include all commercial transactions
where under an adulterated article of food was supplied for consumption by one
person to another person. Therefore, supply or offer of food to hotelier to a
customer when consolidated charge was made for residence and other amenities
including food fell within the definition.
In Manmohan Das Shah v. Bishun Das AIR 643, 1967 SCR (1) 836,the Supreme
Court held that-
"The ordinary rule of construction is that a provision of a Statute must be
construed in accordance with the language used therein unless there are
compelling reasons. Such as, where a literal construction would reduce the
provision to absurdity or prevent the manifest intention of the legislature from
being carried out. There is no reason why the word "or" should be construed
otherwise than in its ordinary meaning. If the construction suggested by Mr.
Desai were to be accepted and the word "or" were to be construed as meaning
"and", it would mean that the construction should not only be such as materially
alters the accommodation but is also such that it would substantially diminish
its value. ...........”
In Kamta Prasad Aggarwal v. Executive Engineer, BallabhgarhAIR 685,
1974 SCR (2) 827the Apex Court held that-
"depending upon the context, "or" may be read as "and" but the Court would not
do it unless it is so obliged because "or" does not generally mean "and" and
"and" does not generally mean "or".
In Keshavji Ravi & co v C.I.T SCR (1) 243, 1990 SCC (2) 231,the court
observed that –
So long as there is no ambiguity in the words or the language of the statute
shall not resort to any interpretative process or any kind of methods to bring
out the meaning. When the meaning given is of general in nature and does not
involve any kind of interpretation till then no interpretation shall be allowed.
Furthermore, again in Hyderabad Asbestos Cement Products v. Union of India, the
Court- Restated the rule for interpretation of the words ‘and’ and ‘or’ and held
as that -
"The language of the rule is plain and simple. It does not admit of any doubt in
interpretation. Provisos 1(i) and 2(i) are separated by the use of conjunction
"and". They have to be read conjointly. The requirement of both the provisos has
to be satisfied to avail the benefit."
In a latest case of 2011, Union of India v. Ind-Swift Laboratories Ltd.
the Apex Court-
Has once again laid emphasis on the need to interpret “and” and “or” in a
manner that ensures the manifest intent of the Legislature is giving effect to.
“Interpretation postulates the search for the true meaning of the words used in
the statute as a medium of expression to communicate a particular thought. The
task is not easy as the “language” is often misunderstood even in ordinary
conversation or correspondence. The tragedy is that although in the matter of
correspondence or conversation the person who has spoken the words or used the
language can be approached for clarification, the Legislature cannot be
approached as the Legislature, after enacting a law or Act, becomes functus
officio so far as that particular Act is concerned and it cannot itself
interpret it. No doubt, the Legislature retains the power to amend or repeal the
law so made and can also declare its meaning, but that can be done only by
making another law or statute after undertaking the whole process of
“It endangers continued public confidence in the political impartiality of the
judiciary, which is essential to the continuance of the rule of law, if Judges,
under the guise of interpretation, provide their own preferred amendments to
statutes which experience of their operation has shown to have had consequences
that members of the Court before whom the matter comes consider to be injurious
to public interest.”
In Union of India And Ors vs Filip Tiago De Gama of Vedem VascoDe Gama
AIR 981, 1989 SCR Supl. (2) 336, in this case-
Grammatical interpretation provides for the literal construction, the words
should be used as they are there shall be no change in the words, this provides
a strict interpretation and has an arrow scope. It is properly known as litra
legis which means to so by the words itself and to understand what has been
expressed. The very purpose of interpretation is to provide a clear legislative
intent and to prevent unreasonableness, ambiguity and absurdity and when the
words used are themselves very clear then there is no need of further
interpretation of it.
In Maqbool Hussain v State of Bombay AIR 325, 1953 SCR 730,-
the appellant, a citizen of India, on arrival at an airport did not declare that
he brought gold with him. Gold, found in his possession during search in
violation of government notification, was confiscated under S 167 (8) Sea
Customs Act, 1878.He was charged under s 8 of the Foreign Exchange Regulation
Act,1947. The appellant pleaded that his trial under the Act was violative of
Art 20(2) of the constitution relating to double jeopardy as he was already
punished for his act by way of confiscation of the gold. It was held by the
Supreme Court that the sea customs authority is not a court or a judicial
tribunal and the confiscation is not a penalty. Consequently, his trial was
valid under the Act of 1947.
Therefore, the Courts are required to assign meanings to all the words and
phrases used in a statute in accordance with the intention of the legislature or
in other words to interpret the statutes.
[iii] Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 1, p.59
[v] Salmond, Jurisprudence, 11thEdition, p. 152
By Reeya Khanna & Paras Arora