Rules of Interpretation of Statutes
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This article is written by L M Lakshmi Priya, a student from the school of law, Sathyabama Institute of Science and Technology, Chennai. This article provides an exhaustive overview of interpretation and construction and their rules and the differences between them..

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


The word ‘interpretation’ literally means ‘to provide meaning’, but it also refers to a technique for bringing together unrelated data and the process of presenting something to readers based on your ideas in a situation in which the interpretation of the law would reveal its true meaning and intention. This construction conveys the meaning of a complex concept. If there is any ambiguity, then the court may decide the meaning of the words which should be used further in that case. When there is uncertainty, construction aids in concluding, whereas interpretation aids in understanding the meaning of the words. Let’s now examine the interpretation and conclusion from a broader scope to see how they differ from one another.

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What is interpretation 

According to Blackstone, “the fairest and rational method for interpreting a statute is by exploring the intention of the legislature through texts, the subject matter, the effect, and consequences or the spirit and reason of law.”  The Latin term ‘interpretaria’, from which the word ‘interpretation’ is derived, implies to expound or explain, particularly the actual meaning of anything. When there are irregularities and ambiguous words in the law, the court should interpret them properly by determining the actual meaning of the words by applying various rules of interpretation. Interpretation of statutes is simply the process of understanding the meaning of the text in the law and applying it to the case in the appropriate manner. The court can determine the exact intent of the legislature by interpreting the legislation and the interpretation of statutes. When a statute’s language is unambiguous, interpretation is not essential, but in cases when particular phrases may have more than one meaning, the statute should be interpreted to ascertain its literal meaning.

Rules of interpretation

When terms in laws are ambiguous or uncertain, it is the court’s responsibility to interpret them to imply exactly what is written there. If mistakes go undiscovered, judges may refer cases to the four rules of interpretation to elucidate the statute. The aforementioned heads serve as the foundation for the rules of interpretation. The main objectives of the interpretation are to determine the word’s true meaning and to establish the intention behind adding that specific term to the law.

  • The Literal Rule
  • The Golden Rule
  • The Mischief Rule
  • The Purposive Rule 

The Literal Rule

The literal rule of interpretation is one of the principles of interpretation the court applies to understand the basis of the statutes. This literal rule of interpretation is regarded as the most fundamental one. This rule, which is also known as the plain meaning rule or the grammatical rule as its name suggests, is important to use to identify the meaning of the words in statutes, but judges are not required to change the words when they are in the right perspective and can be properly interpreted in cases. 

The safest rule of interpretation is that the court and judges should adhere to the definition clause attached to the legislation in determining the meaning of the relevant words, and they should not depart from that definition for any reason. In this literal method of interpretation, the court can determine the words’ natural and ordinary meaning, but judges are not capable of exercising their judicial mind beyond the actual meaning specified in the legislation. A literal rule of interpretation makes the law simple and plain while respecting the sovereignty of the parliament. However, the rules cannot always be applied, which can lead to incorrect judgments being issued.

Case laws

R v. Harris  (1836) 

 In this case, the victim’s nose was bit by the defendant. The Court found that under the literal rule, the act of biting did not fit within the definition of ‘to stab,cut, or wound,” as these terms meant an instrument had to be employed. The statute made it an offence “to stab, cut, or wound’. As a result, the conviction of the defendant was overturned.

Fisher v. Bell (1961)

In this case, the appellant was a Chief Inspector of Police, whereas the respondent had a retail store in Bristol. A police officer observed the presence of a flick knife with a price tag. The respondent was notified by the police officer that the knife was a “flick knife” and that the respondent would be reported for selling flick knives, which was against the act, and claimed that the display of the flick weapon was illegal. However, the respondent disagreed with it. 

The Court used the literal rule of statutory interpretation, which resulted in the dismissal of his conviction, because the products on display in stores are not technically “offers” but rather an invitation to treat. 

The Golden Rule

Viscount Simon L.C says, ” The golden rule is that the words of a  statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning.”  When the literal rule cannot resolve inconsistency or ambiguity in the statute, the golden rule of interpretation is used to resolve this inconsistency. It is also known as the modifying rule of interpretation or the grammatical rule. When it comes to the golden rule, errors in the law are immediately addressed by amending the literal rule of interpretation. Judges are only permitted to slightly alter the language when there is a contradiction, since they occasionally act to their advantage. 

The golden rule of interpretation is the statutory rule, which permits a departure from the common meaning of words when the context of the entire document so requires. There are two methods to apply the golden rule of interpretation. First, it is employed in the most restricted context when there is some ambiguity or absurdity in the words themselves. Secondly, it is used in a broader context to avoid using language that is offensive to public policy values even when there is just one meaning.

Case law

R v. Allen (1872)

In this case, Section 57 of the Offences against the Persons Act of 1861, the defendant was implicated in the crime of bigamy. According to the law, “whosoever being married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offence”. If this clause were to be read literally, it would be impossible to commit the offence because civil law does not recognize second marriages. Any attempt to get married under these circumstances would not be recognized as a legal marriage.

Tarlochan Dev Sharma v. State Of Punjab (2001)

In this case, the Court applied the golden rule of interpretation to the phrase “abuse of his power” contained in Section 22 of the Punjab Municipal Act of 1911, which denotes an intentional or willful misuse of power.

The Mischief Rule

The Mischief rule of interpretation, which is narrower than the literal and the golden rules of interpretation and gives judges more discretion than the other two rules to decide, is considered the third rule of statutory construction. The word “mischief” generally refers to loss or damage to a person or property. The primary goals of this rule are to develop a remedy for the flaw in the statute.

Case law

Heydon’s case (1584)

The Mischief rule of interpretation was first established in this case, in which a college had a particular property in their name and the management decided to give a particular portion to W S and G and their sons for their later lives later during the 16th century in England, where the system known as doubling of estates was valid in these acts of giving property. The English Parliament passed ‘The Statute – 31 Henry VIII’  to stop the doubling of estates. 

Heydon contested this action taken by the crown under the use of this Act, but the Court upheld the action by the crown after applying the mischief rule of interpretation. The primary goal of the legislation passed by the parliament was to safeguard the assets of religious institutions. Because the Court found that the statute was invalid for the doubling of estates, it was upheld. Lord Coke noted the following four points for interpretation of the statutes.

  • What was the common law before passing the Act?
  • What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide?
  • What remedy had Parliament resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth.?
  • The true reason for the remedy.

This ambiguous rule of interpretation served as the court’s explanation for departing from the statute’s plain language to grant remedies, and as such, it has been characterised as a flexible rule of interpretation.

Royal College of Nursing v. DHSS (1981)

In this case, the RCN contested the involvement of nurses in abortion under the offences against the person act, which is unlawful. The Abortion Act of 1967 states that it is legal for medically registered practitioners to perform abortions. The court supported this by interpreting the mischief rule. 

The Purposive Rule 

Purposive interpretation is a term that appears frequently in both legal writing and court rulings. Understanding that “purpose” is a subjective concept is the common theme connecting most references to purposive interpretation. In recent years, the purposive approach has gained popularity. The Law Commission recommended the courts to use this strategy in 1969. Prior to reading the wording of the law, a purposive approach to statutory interpretation looks for the legislation’s goals. It is commonly said that the purposive approach is a hybrid of domestic rules however, domestic rules require for courts to apply the literal rule first to examine the Act’s words, whereas the purposive approach begins with the mischief rule to determine the purpose or intention of Parliament. This makes it a considerably more flexible approach, providing judges more freedom to shape the law in accordance with what they believe to be Parliament’s intent.

Case law

Pepper v. Hart (1992)

In this case, it was up to the House of Lords to determine whether a teacher at a private school was required to pay taxes on the benefit he got in the form of decreased fees. The teacher attempted to rely on a Hansard statement made at the time when the Finance Act was passed, in which the minister specified his precise situation as one in which tax would not be payable. The courts were not permitted in the early years. In contrast to Davis v. Johnson, the House of Lords took a more positive approach to interpretation, concluding that Hansard could be cited and that the teacher was exempt from paying tax on the benefit he received.

What is construction 

  • According to Salmond, “interpretation and construction is the process by which the court seeks to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed.”
  • According to Cooley, “construction is the process of concluding, respecting subjects that lie beyond the direct expression of the text, which is in the spirit though not within the letter of law”.
  • Judges should take into account the factual circumstances before giving a particular meaning to the phrase, words, or expression that are present in the legislation because construction in law is about giving meaning to the ambiguous words in the provisions of the law to resolve the inconsistency.

Difference between interpretation and construction 

The definition of a statute is a written expression of the direction or intent of a legislature. A law can be interpreted or construed to determine its intended meaning. The judicial authorities can define the meaning and objectives of the legislation with the aid of this process of interpretation and construction. Let’s now explore their variances.

Interpretation is the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words and the Purpose of the legislationConstruction is the process of using the legal text to draw conclusions that go beyond its plain language to solve Inconsistencies
Interpretation may be performed when a certain term or phrase in law has an unambiguous meaning,Construction may occur when the language and the meaning attached to specific phrases in the laws are unclear and ambiguous.
The process of interpretation identifies the methods that can be used to interpret any statute.Construction intends to bring it to a conclusion.
Interpretation is used to determine the linguistic meaning of a legal text.The legal impact of the legislative text can be ascertained through construction.
Ambiguity is removed by interpretation.Construction works to create standards to overcome ambiguity
A legal text can be partially interpreted.It is necessary to complete construction as a whole.
Interpretation can be seen as a broad form of constructionConstruction is almost like an interpretation in which the words are considered 


Interpretation and construction are necessary to ensure that every citizen of a nation receives fair justice. The court must be quick to apply the law to the situation. By using interpretation, the court can examine the meaning of the statutes’ words, while construction aids in the explanation of the laws.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is the role of interpretation?

The English language serves as the medium through which our nation’s laws are expressed, and since word meanings can change depending on the context, interpretation becomes necessary when ambiguous or unclear wording appears in a statute.

What is the purpose of the interpretation of the statute?

The two primary grounds for interpretation of laws are as follows:

  1. To be conscious of the word’s true meaning and
  2. To explain the addition of that specific phrase to the statute.

What are the types of interpretation?

Liberal interpretation and strict interpretation are the two types of interpretation.

  • Liberal interpretation – Liberal interpretation refers to the idea that the law should be interpreted broadly in order to give it a deeper and more comprehensive interpretation.
  • Strict interpretation – Strict interpretation states that each word of the law should be read literally, without considering the intent of the statute.


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