Spread the love
  • Salmond gave the definition of interpretation of statutes as follows:

Interpretation of statutes is the procedure by which the courts aim to understand the meaning of a legislation through the means of the authoritative forms in which is expressed.

  • Blackstone also provided for the definition of interpretation of statutes which is as follows:

The fairest and most rational method of understanding and interpreting a statute is by exploring the intention of the legislation through the most natural and probable signs.

What is Interpretation?

Interpretation = derived = Latin term = “interpretari” = means to explain, infer, expound or translate.

The process of ascertaining the actual intended meaning of a written document by giving its words their ordinary meaning is called interpretation. 

In other words, interpretation is the process to ascertain the true meaning of the words written in a legal document.

What is Statute?

In literal sense, “Statute” means a law that has been formally approved and written down. 

In its legal sense, it means an act of a legislature that declares, prescribes, or commands something. Statutes set forth general propositions of law that court applies to the specific situations.

Thus following can be listed as Statute: 

  • Constitution, 
  • Central Acts, 
  • State Acts, 
  • Ordinance, 
  • Bye Laws, 
  • Rules, 
  • Regulations, 
  • Notifications, 
  • Circulars, 
  • Instructions, 
  • Directions, 
  • Clarifications.

Classification of Statutes 

  • Codifying, when they codify the unwritten law on a subject; 
  • Declaratory, when they do not profess to make any alteration in the existing law, but merely declare or explain what it is; 
  • Remedial, when they alter the common law, or the judge made (non-statutory) law; 
  • Amending, when they alter the statute law; 
  • Consolidating, when they consolidate several previous statutes relating to the same subject matter, with or without alternations of substance; 
  • Enabling, when they remove a restriction or disability; 
  • Disabling or restraining, when they restrain the alienation of property; 
  • Penal, when they impose a penalty or forfeiture.

Primary Principles or Rules of Interpretations

  1. Rule of Literal Construction/Interpretation

According to this rule, the words, phrases and sentences of a statute are ordinarily to be understood in their natural, ordinary or popular and grammatical meaning unless such a construction leads to an absurdity or the content or object of the statute suggests a different meaning.

Case Law Nand Prakash Vohra v State of HP

Held-Interpretation should not be given which would make other provisions redundant.

A law can not be interpreted word to word in a different language. In this, the common and normal meaning is given to rules.

The objectives, natural, ordinary and popular are used interchangeably. They mean the grammatical or literal meaning, except when the words are technical because technical words have technical meanings.

In simple words, this rule means to give simple straight forward and fair meaning to the provisions of law. It is the simplest form of interpretation and also known as golden or primary rule of interpretation.

  • Rule of Reasonable Construction or Doctrine of Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pareat

The maximum Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pareat, i.e., the rule of reasonable construction implies that Statute must be constructed sensibly and reasonably.

Case Law Tirath Singh v Bachittar Singh (1955)

A statute or any enacting provision therein must be so constructed so as to make it effective and operative. A construction should be rejected if it results in hardship, serious inconvenience, injustice, absurdity, etc.

  • In simple words, this rule means that if any word in a law can be given more than one meaning, then the court gives the reasonable meaning relevant to the circumstances.
  • The scope of law should not be broadened unnecessarily.
  • While interpreting the intention, the Court must match with the desired result.

If the litera-legis, i.e., the letter of the law is not clear, the interpretation must be according to the purpose, policy, object or spirit of law.

  • Mischief Rule or Heydon’s Rule

Numbers of laws are made to cure a mischief. The mischief rule of interpretation is based on this reason and it states that interpretation should be made in such way that it is able to cure that mischief for which the law had been made. Thus, law should be interpreted in such a way so that it suppresses the mischief and advances the remedy.

It may be noted that mischief rule is applicable only when a particular rule is ambiguous and capable of different meanings. In such a case, the meaning which can suppress the mischief and advance the remedy should be taken and other meaning should be discarded.

Case Law CIT v Sodra Devi

Where a law is clear and can have only one meaning, this rule shall not apply.

  • Harmonious Construction 

When one rule or provision is interpreted then it must be interpreted along with other provisions of law. There must not be conflict between the various provisions of law.

When a different section in an enactment is to be interpreted, it should be done in such a way that the Act as a whole serves a useful purpose. It may be possible that different sections may appear to mean contrary to each other or contradicting each other. Under such circumstances, an attempt should be made to reconcile the provisions of the Act and an effect should be made to give the effect to both the apparently contradictory provisions. Thereby a head on clash between sections of the Act is avoided. This is known as harmonious construction.

Effect should be given to both the laws, is the very essence of the rule of harmonious construction. Thus a construction that reduces one of the provisions to a dead letter is not harmonious construction.

Case Law Raj Krishna v Vinod Kanungo in 1954

Where, in an enactment, there are two provisions which can not be reconciled with each other, they should be so interpreted, that if possible, effect may be given to both.

  • Rule of Ejusdem Generis

The literal meaning of the term ejusdem generis is “of the same kind or species”.It literally means, that while interpreting the provisions of law, if general words are given after some specific words then while interpreting the general words, they must be treated as applying to the matters previously mentioned.

If any general words such a ‘like’, ‘so on’ etc. follow specific words, the general words should include only those meaning which can be given to the specific words. The rule requires that where specific words are all of one genus, meaning of the general words shall be restricted to that genus only, unless there is something to show that a wider meaning was intended.

The rule of Ejusdem Generis applies only when the following conditions are satisfied:

  • The statute contains an enumeration of specific words.
  • The members of enumeration constitute a class or category.
  • The class or category is not exhausted by the enumeration.
  • There is no indication of different legislative intent.

Other Principle/Rules of Interpretation

  • Noscitur A Sociis

The rule literally means that “a word is known by its associates”. In other words, the meaning of the word is to be judged by the company it keeps. When two or more words having the analogous meaning are coupled together, then one word shall be constructed in the manner deriving its meaning from other

  • Expressio Unis Est Exclusio Alterius

The rule literally means that express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of another. In other words, mention of one or more things of a particular class may be regarded as silently excluding all other members of the class. Thus where a statute uses two words or expressions, one of which generally includes the other, the more general term is taken in a sense excluding the less general one.

For example, Section 149 of Companies Act, 2013 mentions that individual can be a director. 

It means any person other than individual can not be a director.

  • Strict and Liberal Construction

The words of a statute are to be constructed in the manner in which they are stated in the Act. The statute is not to be regarded as including anything which is not within its letter and its spirit and which is not clearly and manifestly described in the words of the statute itself.

In other words, the law is interpreted by strict interpretation and spirit of law is to be used strictly.Where the usual meaning of the words falls short of the object of the legislature, a more extended meaning may be attributed to them. It has been held in many cases that it is the duty of the judge to make such construction of a statute as shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy or which fulfills the objective thought behind in enactment of that law. This is called liberal construction.

Internal Aids of Interpretation

  1. Title – The long title is set out at the head of the statute and gives a fairly full description of the general purpose, object and scope of the Act. It is now settled that the long title of an Act is the part of the Act and it is legitimate to use it for the purpose of interpreting the Act as a whole.
  2. Preamble: A preamble may afford useful light as to what a statute intends to achieve. It may be noted that the preamble can be taken as an aid in interpretation of law only if that law is not clear and ambiguous in nature, otherwise not.
  3. Headings: The prefix ‘headings’ to sections, chapters and parts of statute can be used in constructing the provision of an Act, but only in cases where the enacting words are ambiguous.
  4. Marginal Notes: Marginal notes are often found printed at the side of the sections in an Act. They purport to summaries the effect of the section and have sometimes to be used as an aid to interpretation.
  5. Interpretation Clause:  Interpretation clause consists of definitions of various words which are frequently used throughout the Act. Whenever a word has been defined in an interpretation clause prima facie, that definition governs whenever that word is used in the body of the statute. However, if in a particular context, different meaning of a word is given, then the different meaning will be used and general meanings will be discarded for the purpose of interpretation.
  6. Provisos: Provisos are the various conditions appended to a section in an Act. A particular section will be applicable only if the conditions specified in its proviso are satisfied. For example, exceptions of caveat emptor.
  7. Illustrations: Illustrations attached to sections are part of the statute and they are useful so far as they furnish some information which helps in interpretation.
  8. Explanation: An explanation is, at times, appended to a section to explain the meaning of words contained in the section. It becomes the part and parcel of an enactment.
  9. Schedules: The schedules form a part of the statute and must be read together with it for the purpose of construction.
  10. Statement of Objects (Purpose) and Reasons: The fact that Parliament has passed the provisions of the statement of objects, given sanction to them, and thus they are a valid aid in the interpretation of provisions.

External Aids of Interpretation

Following are important external aid of interpretation:

  1. Parliamentary History: The Supreme Court, on many occasions, has used this aid of parliamentary history, i.e., debates and discussions of the Parliament while making that law, in resolving questions of construction.
  2. Historical facts and circumstances: It has already been established that the court is entitled to take into account such external or historical facts as may be necessary to understand the subject matter of the statute.
  3. Reference to reports of committees: The report of a selected committees or other committees on whose report an enactment is based, can be looked into for the interpretation of statute.
  4. Reference to other statutes: It has already been established that reference to other statutes in “Parimeteria”, i.e., statutes dealing with the same subject matter, is permitted to interpret other laws dealing with the same subject.
  5. Dictionaries: When a word is not defined in the Act itself, it is permissible to refer to dictionaries to find out the general sense in which that word is understood in common parlance.
  6. Use of Foreign decision: Use of foreign decisions of countries, following the same systems of jurisprudence as ours, and rendered on statutes in ‘Parimateria’ (statutes dealing with the same subject matter), has been Permitted by Practice Courts.
  7. Presumptions: Where the meaning of the statute is clear, there is no need for presumptions. But if the intention of the legislature is not clear, there are number of presumptions. These are:

(a) that the words in a statute are used precisely and not loosely.

(b) that vested rights, i.e., rights which a person possessed at the time the statute was passed, are not taken away without express words, or necessary implication or without compensation.

(c) that “mens rea”, i.e., guilty mind is required for a criminal act. There is a very strong presumption that a statute creating a criminal offence does not intend to attach liability without a guilty intent .The general rule applicable to criminal cases is “actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea” (The act itself does not constitute guilt unless done with a guilty intent).

(d) that the state is not affected by a statute unless it is expressly mentioned as being so affected.

(e) that a statute is not intended to be inconsistent with the principles of International Law. Although the judges cannot declare a statute void as being repugnant to International Law, yet if two possible alternatives present themselves, the judges will choose that which is not at variance with it.

(f) that the legislature knows the state of the law.

(g) that the legislature does not make any alteration in the existing law unless by express enactment.

(h) that the legislature knows the practice of the executive and the judiciary.

(i) legislature confers powers necessary to carry out duties imposed by it.

(j) that the legislature does not make mistake. The Court will not even alter an obvious one, unless it be to correct faulty language where the intention is clear.

(jj) the law compels no man to do that which is futile or fruitless.

(k) legal fictions may be said to be statements or suppositions which are known, to be untrue, but which are not allowed to be denied in order that some difficulty may be overcome, and substantial justice secured. It is a well settled rule of interpretation that in construing the scope of a legal fiction, it would be proper and even necessary to assume all those facts on which alone the fiction can operate.

(l) where powers and duties are inter-connected and it is not possible to separate one from the other in such a way that powers may be delegated while duties are retained and vice versa, the delegation of powers takes with it the duties.

(m) the doctrine of natural justice is really a doctrine for the interpretation of statutes, under which the Court will presume that the legislature while granting a drastic power must intend that it should be fairly exercised.