The article is written by Kashish Grover, from Symbiosis Law School, Noida.
Table of Contents
Maxwell’s ‘Interpretation of Statutes’ has defined statute as the will of the legislature. Usually, it refers to the act that is enacted by the legislature. The term statute is generally applied to laws and regulations of every sort law which ordains, permits or prohibits anything which is designated as a statute, without considering from what source it arises.
Constitution of India has no particular definition for the word statute but it uses the term “law” for denoting the actions of legislature and its primary power. Statutes are divided into classes as mentioned below:
- Codification: It is one when they codify the unwritten law on a particular subject.
- Declaration: When there is no change in the existing law but merely clarification or explanation of what it is.
- Remedial: This is when they alter the common law or the judge makes a non-statutory law on a particular subject.
- Amendment: This is when the judge or the legislature changes or alters the statute law.
- Consolidation: This is combining several previous statutes relating to the same subject matter with or without making changes in the same.
- Enabling: Removal of restriction or disability.
- Disabling or Restraining: Restrain on the alienation of property.
- Penal: When there is imposition of penalty or forfeiture.
Need and Object of Interpretation
Salmond directed that, “Interpretation or construction is the process by which the Court’s seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed.”
Lord Denning commented on the need of interpretation in Seasford Court Estates Ltd. v. Asher. He said that it is not within an ordinary man’s power to realise what new facts will arise from a case at hand. Considering the facts, all laws cannot be free from ambiguity when applied to them. There can be no legislature or judge that can make a perfect law written in perfect English for ordinary people to understand and not get criticized. Therefore, interpretation of a law is very important as what one writes can be converted into various meanings and various judgments. A judge should ask himself the question: If the makers of the Act had themselves come across this luck in the texture of it, how would they have straight ended it out? He must then do as they would have done. A judge must not alter the material of which it is woven, but he can and should iron out the creases.
The main and most important objective of interpretation is to see the intention that has been merely expressed by the words. The words of the statute are to be interpreted so as to ascertain the mind of legislature from natural and grammatical meaning of the words which it has used.
General Principles of Interpretation
When the intention of legislature is not clearly expressed, a court needs to interpret the laws using the rules of interpretation. There are two types of Rules of Interpretation with sub-categories:
- Primary Rules
- The Primary Rule: Literal Interpretation
- The Mischief Rule: Heydon’s Rule
- Rule of Reasonable Construction or Ut Res Magis Valent Quam Pareat
- Rule of Harmonious Construction
- Rule of Ejusdem Generis
- Other Rules
- Expressio Units Est Exclusio Alterius
- Contemporanea Expositio Est Optima Et Fortissima in Lege
- Noscitur a Sociis
- Strict and Liberal Construction
The Primary Rule: Literal Interpretation
In construing Statutes, the cardinal rule is to construe its provisions literally and grammatically giving the words their ordinary and natural meaning. This rule is also known as the Plain meaning rule. The first and foremost step in the course of interpretation is to examine the language and the literal meaning of the statute. The words in an enactment have their own natural effect and the construction of an act depends on its wording. There should be no additions or substitution of words in the construction of statutes and in its interpretation. The primary rule is to interpret words as they are. It should be taken into note that the rule can be applied only when the meanings of the words are clear i.e. words should be simple so that the language is plain and only one meaning can be derived out of the statute.
To avoid ambiguity, legislatures often include “definitions” sections within a statute, which explicitly define the most important terms used in that statute. But some statutes omit a definitions section entirely, or (more commonly) fail to define a particular term. The plain meaning rule attempts to guide courts faced with litigation that turns on the meaning of a term not defined by the statute, or on that of a word found within a definition itself.
Proponents of the plain meaning rule claim that it prevents courts from taking sides in legislative or political issues. They also point out that ordinary people and lawyers do not have extensive access to secondary sources. In probate law the rule is also favoured because the testator is typically not around to indicate what interpretation of a will is appropriate. Therefore, it is argued, extrinsic evidence should not be allowed to vary the words used by the testator or their meaning. It can help to provide for consistency in interpretation.
One criticism of the rule is that it rests on the erroneous assumption that words have a fixed meaning. In fact, words are imprecise, leading justices to impose their own prejudices to determine the meaning of a statute. However, since little else is offered as an alternative discretion-confining theory, plain meaning survives.
In Municipal board v. State transport authority, Rajasthan, the location of a bus stand was changed by the Regional Transport Authority. An application could be moved within 30 days of receipt of order of regional transport authority according to section 64 A of the Motor vehicles Act, 1939. The application was moved after 30 days on the contention that statute must be read as “30 days from the knowledge of the order”. The Supreme Court held that literal interpretation must be made and hence rejected the application as invalid.
Lord Atkinson stated, ‘In the construction of statutes their words must be interpreted in their ordinary grammatical sense unless there be something in the context or in the object of the statute in which they occur or in the circumstances in which they are used, to show that they were used in a special sense different from their ordinary grammatical sense.’
The Mischief Rule: Heydon’s Case
In Heydon‟s Case, it was resolved by the Barons of the Exchequer “that for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general (be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the Common Law) four things are to be discerned and considered:
- What was the Common Law before the making of the Act?
- What was the mischief and defect for which the Common Law did not provide?
- What remedy the Parliament had resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth?
- What is the true reason of the remedy?
The office of all the judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle inventions and evasions for continuance of the mischief, and pro privato commodo, and to add force and life to the cure and remedy, according to the true intent of the makers of the Act, pro bono publico.
The application of this rule gives the judge more discretion than the literal and the golden rule as it allows him to effectively decide on Parliament’s intent. It can be argued that this undermines Parliament’s supremacy and is undemocratic as it takes law-making decisions away from the legislature.
There are certain advantages and disadvantages of the rule. The Law Commission sees it as a rule that is far more satisfactory way of interpreting acts as it avoids unjust or absurd results in sentencing but for some it is considered to be out of date as it was established in 16th century when conditions were very different from now.
The Supreme Court in Bengal Immunity Co. v. State of Bihar, applied the mischief rule in construction of Article 286 of the Constitution of India. After referring to the state of law prevailing in the province prior to the constitution as also to the chaos and confusion that was brought about in inter-state trade and commerce by indiscriminate exercise of taxing powers by the different Provincial Legislatures founded on the theory of territorial nexus, Chief Justice S.R. Das, stated “It was to cure this mischief of multiple taxation and to preserve the free flow of interstate trade or commerce in the Union of India regarded as one economic unit without any provincial barrier that the constitution maker adopted Article 286 in the constitution”.
A principle to be valued must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it existence. These are designed to approach immortality as nearly as human institutions can approach it’. Mischief Rule is applicable where language is capable of more than one meaning. It is the duty of the Court to make such construction of a statue which shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.
Rule of Reasonable Construction or Golden Rule
The words used in a statute have to be construed in their ordinary meaning, but in many cases, judicial approach finds that the simple device of adopting the ordinary meaning of words, does not meet the ends as a fair and a reasonable construction. Exclusive reliance on the bare dictionary meaning of words may not necessarily assist a proper construction of the statutory provision in which the words occur. Often enough interpreting the provision, it becomes necessary to have regard to the subject matter of the statute and the object which it is intended to achieve.
According to this rule, the words of a statute must be construed ut res magis valeat quam pareat, so as to give a sensible meaning to them. A provision of law cannot be so interpreted as to divorce it entirely from common sense, every word or expression used in an Act should receive a natural and fair meaning.
It is a compromise between the plain meaning (or literal) rule and the mischief rule. Like the plain meaning rule, it gives the words of a statute their plain, ordinary meaning. However, when this may lead to an irrational result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the judge can depart from this meaning. In the case of homographs, where a word can have more than one meaning, the judge can choose the preferred meaning; if the word only has one meaning, but applying this would lead to a bad decision, the judge can apply a completely different meaning.
In RBI v. Peerless General Finance and Investment Co. Ltd, the Supreme Court stated that if a statute is looked at in the context of its enactment, with the glasses of the statute makers provided by such context, its scheme, the sections, clauses, phrases and words may take colour and appear different than when the statute is looked at without the glasses provided by the context. With these glasses we must look at the Act as a whole and discover what each section, each clauses each phrase and each word is meant and designed to say as to fit into the scheme of the entire Act.
Rule of Harmonious Construction
When there is a conflict between two or more statues or two or more parts of a statute then the rule of harmonious construction needs to be adopted. The rule follows a very simple premise that every statute has a purpose and intent as per law and should be read as a whole. The interpretation consistent of all the provisions of the statute should be adopted. In the case in which it shall be impossible to harmonize both the provisions, the court’s decision regarding the provision shall prevail.
When there are two provisions in a statute, which are in apparent conflict with each other, they should be interpreted such that effect can be given to both and that construction which renders either of them inoperative and useless should not be adopted except in the last resort.
The important aspects of this principle are:
- 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.
- When it is impossible to completely reconcile the differences in contradictory provisions, the courts must interpret them in such as way so that effect is given to both the provisions as much as possible.
- Courts must also keep in mind that interpretation that reduces one provision to a useless number or a dead lumbar, is not harmonious construction.
- To harmonize is not to destroy any statutory provision or to render it loose.
In Raj Krishna v. Binod, two provisions of Representation of People Act, 1951, which were in apparent conflict, were brought forth. Section 33 (2) says that a Government Servant can nominate or second a person in election but section 123(8) says that a Government Servant cannot assist any candidate in election except by casting his vote. The Supreme Court observed that both these provisions should be harmoniously interpreted and held that a Government Servant was entitled to nominate or second a candidate seeking election in State Legislative assembly. This harmony can only be achieved if Section 123(8) is interpreted as giving the govt. servant the right to vote as well as to nominate or second a candidate and forbidding him to assist the candidate in any other manner.
Rule of Ejusdem Generis
Ejusdem Generis (pronounced as “eh-youse-dem generous”) is a Latin term which means “of the same kind.” The term ‘Ejusdem Generis’ in other words means words of a similar class. The rule is that where particular words have a common characteristic (i.e. of a class) any general words that follow should be construed as referring generally to that class; no wider construction should be afforded.
It is presumed that a statute will be interpreted so as to be internally consistent. A particular section of the statute shall not be divorced from the rest of the Act. The Ejusdem Generis rule applies to resolve the problem of giving meaning to groups of words where one of the words is ambiguous or inherently unclear.
Normally, general words should be given their natural meaning like all other words unless the context requires otherwise. But when a general word follows specific words of a distinct category, the general word may be given a restricted meaning of the same category. The general expression takes its meaning from the preceding particular expressions because the legislature by using the particular words of a distinct genus has shown its intention to that effect.
The rule of Ejusdem Generis must be applied with great caution, because, it implies a departure from the natural meaning of words, in order to give them a meaning on a supposed intention of the legislature. The rule must be controlled by the fundamental rule that statutes must be construed so as to carry out the object sought to be accomplished. The rule requires that the specific words are all of one genus, in which case, the general words may be presumed to be restricted to that genus.
The Supreme Court in Maharashtra University of Health and others v. Satchikitsa Prasarak Mandal & Others has examined and explained the meaning of Ejusdem Generis as a rule of interpretation of statutes in our legal system.
While examining the doctrine, the Supreme Court held that the expression Ejusdem Generis which means “of the same kind or nature” is a principle of construction, meaning thereby when general words in a statutory text are flanked by restricted words, the meaning of the general words are taken to be restricted by implication with the meaning of restricted words.
The Supreme Court has further held that the Ejusdem Generis principle is a facet of the principle of ‘Noscitur a sociis’(A latin term for ‘it is known by the company it keeps’, it is the concept that the intended meaning of an ambiguous word depends on the context in which it is used). The Latin maxim Noscitur a Sociis contemplates that a statutory term is recognized by its associated words. The Latin word ‘sociis’ means ‘society’. Therefore, when general words are juxtaposed with specific words, general words cannot be read in isolation. Their color and their contents are to be derived from their context. But like all other linguistic canons of construction, the Ejusdem Generis principle applies only when a contrary intention does not appear.
Expressio Units Est Exclusio Alterius
The maxim is given to gauge the intent of the legislature. If the words of the Statute are plain and its meaning is clear then there is no scope for applying the rule. The rule means that express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of another.
At the same time, general words in a statute must receive a general construction, unless there is in the statute some ground for limiting and restraining their meaning by reasonable construction; because many things are put into a statute ex abundanti cautela, and it is not to be assumed that anything not specifically included is for that reason alone excluded from the protection of the statute. The method of construction according to this maxim must be carefully watched. The failure to make the “expression” complete may arise from accident. Similarly, the “exclusion” is often the result of inadvertence or accident because it never struck the draftsman that the thing supposed to be excluded requires specific mention. The maxim ought not to be applied when its application leads to inconsistency or injustice.
Contemporanea Expositio Est Optima Et Fortissima in Lege
The maxim means that a contemporaneous exposition is the best and strongest in law. Where the words used in a statute have undergone alteration in meaning in course of time, the words will be construed to bear the same meaning as they had when the statute was passed on the principle expressed in the maxim. In simple words, old statutes should be interpreted as they would have been at the date when they were passed and prior usage and interpretation by those who have an interest or duty in enforcing the Act, and the legal profession of the time, are presumptive evidence of their meaning when the meaning is doubtful.
But if the statute appears to be capable of only interpretation, the fact that a wrong meaning had been attached to it for many years, will be immaterial and the correct meaning will be given by the Courts except when title to property may be affected or when every day transactions have been entered into on such wrong interpretation.
Noscitur a Sociis
The “Noscitur a Sociis” i.e. “It is known by its associates”. In other words, meaning of a word should be known from its accompanying or associating words. It is not a sound principle in interpretation of statutes, to lay emphasis on one word disjuncted from its preceding and succeeding words. A word in a statutory provision is to be read in collocation with its companion words. The pristine principle based on the maxim „noscitur a socitis‟ has much relevance in understanding the import of words in a statutory provision (K. Bhagirathi G. Shenoy v. K.P. Ballakuraya, AIR 1999 SC 2143). The rule states that where two or more words which are susceptible of analogous meaning are coupled together, they are understood in their cognate sense. It is only where the intention of the legislature in associating wider words with words of narrower significance, is doubtful that the present rule of construction can be usefully applied.
The same words bear the same meaning in the same statute. But this rule will not apply:
- When the context excluded that principle.
- If sufficient reason can be assigned, it is proper to construe a word in one part of an Act in a different sense from that which it bears in another part of the Act.
- Where it would cause injustice or absurdity.
- Where different circumstances are being dealt with.
- Where the words are used in a different context. Many do not distinguish between this rule and the ejusdem generis doctrine. But there is a subtle distinction as pointed out in the case of State of Bombay v. Hospital Mazdoor Sabha.
Strict and Liberal Construction
In Wiberforce on Statute Law, it is said that what is meant by ‘strict construction’ is that “Acts, are not to be regarded as including anything which is not within their letter as well as their spirit, which is not clearly and intelligibly described in the very words of the statute, as well as manifestly intended”, while by “liberal construction” is meant that “everything is to be done in advancement of the remedy that can be done consistently with any construction of the statute”. Beneficial construction to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy is generally preferred.
A Court invokes the rule which produces a result that satisfies its sense of justice in the case before it. “Although the literal rule is the one most frequently referred to in express terms, the Courts treat all three (viz., the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule) as valid and refer to them as occasion demands, but do not assign any reasons for choosing one rather than another. Sometimes a Court discusses all the three approaches. Sometimes it expressly rejects the “mischief rule” in favour of the “literal rule”. Sometimes it prefers, although never expressly, the “mischief rule” to the “literal rule”.
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