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Rules of Interpretation of Statutes

Interpretation of statute is one important task assigned to the courts by which they interpret the statute or law when there is question of law comes to it which is not precisely answered in the statute, and its lead to ambiguity and superficiality in the application of the law. Courts uses their analytical reasoning and due diligence to find intent of the legislation by which there can be proper interpretation of the law.

The intent of the legislature behind passing the statute helps the court in interpreting the statute. The intent of the legislation is to be seen from very wide perspective and many points it needed to be considered such as reason for legislation, object and purpose of legislation, priority area of legislation, class of people on which legislation must be applied. The intention behind the legislature in passing the law can be the determining factor in proper interpretation of the law.

In Pitches v. Kenny[1] , it was said that:
"The object of an Act and its intent, meaning and spirit can only be ascertained from the term of the Act itself." In finding the intent of legislation the court must find natural meaning of the word used in the legislation and what is overall context and scope of the word occur in the legislation and any other phrase in the legislation which can throw light to the fact.

Some Important Consideration In Interpretation Are:

  1. Statute Must Be Read In Its Context As A Whole

    There is well settled and established Principal of law that Statute must be read in its whole context and not merely by reading the text of a particular section of the Act. The intention of legislature behind enacting an Act or Statute can be ascertained by reading the whole text of the statute and the context in which word has been used in the Act.

    Maxwell states that the expression "reading word in their context" as two aspects:
    1. The external aspect: reading of statute or the Act must not be in isolation but in its whole context such as class of people affected by the act, historical context, parliamentary debates on the statute, parliamentary publication such as reports of the committee's which preceded the legislation, conventions, and international laws on the subject.
    2. The statutory aspect: it is established rule that interpretation must be of all parts together, not of one part itself and other part in that context only.
    In the case of Balsinor Nagrik Co-op. Bank Ltd. V. Babubhai S Pandya [2] it was held by the Hon'ble Supreme court that:
    It is an elementary rule that construction of a statute is to be made all parts together. It is not permissible to omit any part of it. For the principal that the statute must be read as a whole is equally applicable to different parts of the same section.
  2. UT Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat

    The legal maxim "ut res magis valeat quam pereat" means is it is better for a thing to have an effect than to be made void. Based on it this maxim it is established that court should validate a statute passed by legislature rather than making it void as there should be some purpose and object and reason for passing the Act by legislature, so it is better to validate a statute rather than making it null and void. If there is some ambiguity and enigma in statute courts strive to give it meaning rather that.
  3. Rule Of Harmonious Construction

    The principal of harmonious construction is construction to maintain the harmony or oneness among various provision of statute. The idea behind the rule of harmonious construction is that the legislature never intends to contradict itself by providing incompatible or conflicting provisions in the same Act or Statute. This rule is applicable when two sections of the same statute contradict themselves and are repugnant. The court should try to rule in such a way that both sections harmonize with each other.

    In the case of Krishna Kumar v. State of Rajasthan[3] it was observed that if there is clear self-contradiction into sections of the same act, the rule of harmonious construction is applied to avoid any clash between two provisions of the same Act. It cannot be assumed that Parliament has given with one-hand and take it from other hand. Two provisions of the same statute cannot be contradicted itself.

    In the case of CIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carriers[4] the Hon'ble Supreme Court has laid down following points to be considered for harmonious construction:
    1. It is duty of the court to keep away from two-seemingly contradicting sections of the Act and try to harmonize them unless
    2. the court must not use one section of the Act to defeat the provision of other section of the same Act unless there is no other way despite all there, they are not able avoid without the same.
    3. If it is impossible to completely reconcile two conflicting provision of the same statute then, if possible, it should interpret in such as to give effect to both provision of the Statute.
    4. The court must keep in mind when that interpretation of the courts reduces the one provision of the Act to the "dead letter" or "useless provision" it is not harmonious construction.
    5. To harmonize is not to reduce any provision of the statutory provision.

The Principal Rules Of Interpretation

There are three principles rules of Interpretation of Statutes. These are:
  1. The Priimary Rule: Literal Construction

    The rule of literal construction is considered to be the primary rule of interpretation. It is one of the rules in which grammatical meaning of the word or phrase is used and this rule is also called the grammatical rule of interpretation. Under this rule the court try to interpret Statute on the literal, ordinary, popular, and common meaning of the word and phrases. This rule postulates that it is duty of the court to expound the law as it stands and not to modify, alter or quantify its language.

    In the case of Cartledge v. Japling (E.) & Sons [5] it was held by court that were by use of clear and unequivocal language of only one meaning, anything is enacted by the legislature, it must be enforced however harsh or absurd or contrary to common sense the result may be.

    The literal rule of statutory interpretation regards that if meaning of the word is plain and simple court should apply it regardless of the result. In Sutters v. Biggs[6] Lord Birkenhead said that "It is duty of the court is to expound the law as it is stands to leave the remedy two others.

    The rule of literal interpretation based on the legal maxim "verbis legis non est recelendum" which means from the word of law there is no departure. Because the purpose of the statute is stated in the statute, the court's primary duty is to not change the language of the Act if it is clear and unambiguous, and the effect of the statute should be given. The reason for such a maxim is that the Parliament, as the supreme law-making body, should know what it intends in the statute.

    The meaning of a statute can also be affected by the context, as in the legal maxim noscitur a sociis, which means the meaning of an unclear and ambiguous word should be determined by the context with which it is associated. Courts sometimes interpret a word or phrase in the context in which it is used in the statute.

    The rule of literal construction can be understood in the following terms:
    Plain and natural meaning:

    In the literal interpretation of statute plain and natural meaning of word or phrases to be referred in the case of legal word or phrase their legal meaning to be referred. Sometimes the popular meaning of the word may not be the natural meaning of the word or phrase, but the natural meaning must be referred to.

    In the case of Municipal Board v. State Transport Authority, Rajasthan[7] the location of bus stand by changed by the local transport authority. Application against the order must be moved within 30 days from the date of the order. The issue raised be applicant is that the order can be moved 30 days from the knowledge of the order passed by Regional Transport authority. The Hon'ble Supreme Court held that the since the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous equitable consideration are out of place and clear grammatical meaning of the statute stand out.

    Meaning to be ascertained by the reference to context
    The literal rule requires that words be understood first in their plain, natural, ordinary meaning with reference to the context in which they are used. Meaning is to be arrived at by reading words in their context.

    Construction of ordinary words in their popular sense
    The word or phrases used in the legislation should be used in their popular sense. "Popular sense" means that sense which people who are familiar with and have knowledge or experience of the facts or rule with which the statute is dealing would attribute to it. In the case of Mukesh Aggarwal & Co. v. State of M. P[8] Hon'ble Supreme Court observed that "the common commercial sense of the words and not their scientific or technical sense is to be adopted for our merchants and not supposed to be naturalists, botanist, or geologist.

    Technical words in their technical sense
    When words or phrases have their technical or legal meaning attached to them, they should be interpreted according to the primary meaning that is technical or legal meaning attached to it.

    Some words acquire a special or technical meaning that becomes popular in the context of the concerned business, trade, or profession, art, or science, and that meaning becomes normal or popular in that context over time. It is that popular meaning that constitutes the definitive index of the legislation. But there are some limitations in the rules that must be kept in mind.
    1. That the special meaning acquired by the word or phrase must be understood as a whole and not as a portion of only the concerned profession or business.
    2. The special meaning acquired by the word must be in vogue at the time of drafting the statute.
    In the case of Union of India v. Delhi Cloth and General Mills[9] it was held by the Hon'ble Supreme Court that evidence to show that special meaning has been acquired by the word in business or industry is admissible in courts.

    This rule is seen as primary rule of interpretation. It has been used not only by courts in England, where it originated, but also by courts around the world. The rule of literal interpretation is considered one of the oldest rules. Legislation should be drafted in such a way that the original and natural meaning of the words and phrases to be referred to is preserved. Courts must only change the word's or phrase's meaning when the original word creates ambiguity and uncertainty; otherwise, they must stick to their literal meaning.
  2. Golden Rule

    Parke B had in Becke v. Smith formulated the rule as follow "It is very useful rule, in the construction of a statute, to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the word used, and to the grammatical construction, unless that is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the statute itself, or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which the language may be varied or modified, so as to avoid such inconvenience but no further."

    The Golden Rule of Interpretation is a modified version of the Literal Rule of Interpretation. When the words or phrases of the statute do not fit with their natural meaning and create absurdity, uncertainty, or are superficial, the golden rule of interpretation is adhered to.

    In the words of Maxwell, "The so-called golden rule of interpretation is nothing but a modification of the literal rule of interpretation." This rule is also considered the modifying method of interpretation.

    Sometimes a statute isn't clear and has anomalies and absurdities; at that time, the golden rule must be applied with due caution and care to avoid any uncertainty and inconvenience or to complete justice and arrive at the correct interpretation, which would bring about the true meaning of the language and give effect to the real intention of the legislature behind passing the statute.
  3. Mischief Rule

    Mischief means "Voluntarily cause injury or loss to someone"

    Mischief rule is a rule of interpretation to prevent misuse of provisions of the statute. Mischief rule is framed to avoid any mischief added by the statute. This rule is so interpreted that any mischief in statute must be avoided and object and purpose of passing the act by the legislature is attained.

    In Kanailal Sur v. Paramnidhi Sadhu Khan[10] it was observed by Hon'ble Supreme Court that "this rule is most helpful in the interpretation of statutes when the language of the statute is capable of more than one meaning"

    Lord Coke in Heydon case decided four criteria on which the mischief rule is constructed:
    1. What was the common law prevailing before passing of the Act?
    2. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide,
    3. What remedy the Parliament was provided to remove the defect
    4. What is actual reason for the remedy?
    The rule of mischief is also considered to be purposive interpretation of statute as consideration of mischief may lead to wider or narrow interpretation of statute.

    In the case of Pyarelal v. Ramchandra Mahadev[11] accused was charged with using artificial sweetener in the supari for sweetening. Accused argued that supari does not come under the category of food under Food Adulteration Act, 1954. Hon'ble Supreme Court set aside the argument of Accused and held that supari comes in the category of food in the Act. Supreme court interpreted the Act in such a way to prevent mischief and advance the remedy.

Parliament is the supreme law-making body and is assigned the very important task of drafting and implementing the law in the country. It is their duty to ensure that the statute is drafted in such a way that there are no chances of ambiguity and laxity. But when there is some ambiguity in the statute courts must interpret the statute in such a way as to be consistent with the intention and purpose of the legislature in passing the Act.

Courts must not cross their limits in the name of judicial review to give very wide or narrow interpretations of the statute. It must secure the supremacy of Parliament in making laws, and courts must only act as supervisors of various laws passed by the Legislature. When the Statute has any absurdity and creates injustice, then only courts should give wide interpretation to only fulfill the purpose of passing the Statute by legislature.

  • Maxwell's Interpretation of Statute
  • Deepak Jain, Interpretation of Statutes: A treatise
  • Interpretation of Statute by Justice A.K. Srivastava
  • All About Interpretation of Statutes By: Nishita Kapoor
  • Literally Interpretation the Law- A Appraisal of the Literal rule of Interpretation of Statutes
  • Interpretation of Statutes: A Complete study to an aids to interpretation
  1. [1903 22 N.Z.L.R. 818, 819]
  2. AIR (1987) SC 849
  3. 1991 4 SCC 258, 267
  4. AIR 2002 SC 3491
  5. [1963 AC 758 : 1963 1 ER 341]
  6. (1922) 1 A.C. 1
  7. AIR 1965 SC 458
  8. AIR 1988 SC 563
  9. AIR (1963) SC 791
  10. AIR 1957 SC 905
  11. AIR 1974 SC 223

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