Rules of Interpretation of Statutes
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This article is written by Pearl Narang, a student of BBA LL.B at Chandigarh University, Mohali. In this article, she has discussed rules of interpretation of statutes. 

Introduction

The legislature makes laws with a specific intent in mind. The responsibility of deciphering that intent lies with the judiciary. This process of getting to know the intent behind the law is known as statute interpretation. 

Interpretation

According to its dictionary meaning, interpretation is an act of explaining the meaning of a thing. In legal context, interpretation means the act of interpreting and deciphering the intent behind a statute. The term ‘interpretation’ has its roots in the Latin word ‘interpretari’ which means to explain, or to translate. The main aim of interpreting a statute is to determine the intention behind the law.

The government is made up of three branches,

  1. The Legislature, 
  2. The Executive, and
  3. The Judiciary.

These three branches perform different functions. The legislature makes the laws, the executive implements the laws that are made and the judiciary interprets the laws and makes them operational. 

When is interpretation done?

Interpretation is done only when, 

  1. The language of the provision is ambiguous.
  2. It is not clear what the law is made for. 
  3. When a provision has two or more meanings.
  4. When two or more views are possible about the provision. 
  5. The meaning of the provision defeats the purpose of the statute.

Need of Interpretation

Drafting a law is a complex task, the legislature has to keep in mind thousands of scenarios so that the legislation drafted is complete in itself. In an ideal world, the meaning of the statute would be clear and direct. In the real world that we live in, most of the times the law drafted is complicated and vague.

Seaford Court Estates Ltd. v. Asher

In this case, the need for interpretation of statutes was highlighted. It was stated that when a defect appears in a statute, the judge cannot simply wash his hands off the responsibility and blame the legislature, he should interpret the statute by finding the intent behind it. The judge should not only focus on the language of the statute but also on the social considerations that made the parliament draft a particular statute. 

Interpretation is needed because, 

  1. The complicated process of drafting laws leads to a variety of gaps and ambiguity in the statute.
  2. The words, phrases, terms used in the statute can have varying meanings due to the multifaceted nature of the language.
  3. A law is never drafted by a single person but rather by a group of people, this leads to incoherence in the language.
  4. Some statues use technical language because of their complicated subject matter. 
  5. The applicability of law changes with new developments. 

Kinds of Interpretations

There are various kinds of interpretations. These are, 

Literal Interpretation: It is also known as grammatical interpretation. While doing this kind of interpretation, the judges are not in any way allowed to add or modify the letter of the law. They should strictly follow the language and directly translate its meaning.

Lalita Kumari v. Government of Uttar Pradesh

In this case, the judges dealt with the interpretation of Section 154 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The judges used literal interpretation for interpreting the section and stated that the word “shall” used in the provision makes it mandatory and no other meaning will be given to the word. The other expression that the court gave meaning to was “information”. The court stated that the police officer has to record information even if he considers it to be unreasonable. 

Functional Interpretation: In this kind of interpretation, the judges deviate from the literal meaning and look elsewhere to decipher the intent behind the law. Functional interpretation is done in four cases,

  • When the statute is inconsistent.
  • When the statue is incomplete.
  • When the language of the statute is ambiguous.
  • When there is a logical flaw in the letter of the law.

Rules of Interpretation of Statutes

Since the judiciary has been entrusted with the responsibility of interpreting the law to administer justice. It is very important that the interpretation is made according to some rules so that the decisions delivered by the judges are just and bring some coherence to the operational aspects of the law.

The rules of interpretation of statutes are divided into two categories. 

  1. Primary Rules
  2. Secondary Rules

Primary Rules – These are the main rules of interpretation of statutes. These include:

  1. Rule of Strict Interpretation
  2. Rule of Liberal Interpretation 
  3. Literal Rule 
  4. Rule of Reasonable Construction
  5. Golden Rule
  6. Mischief Rule
  7. Rule of Harmonious Construction 
  8. Ejusdem Generis
  9. Beneficial Construction
  10. Purposive Construction

Secondary Rules – Rules other than primary rules are secondary rules. These include:

  1. Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius
  2. Contemporanea Expositio Est Optima Et Fortissima in Lege
  3. Noscitur a Sociis

Rule of Strict Interpretation 

The rule of strict construction is used for interpreting criminal legislation. According to this rule, the interpretation which is most favorable to the defendant would be applicable. 

Rule of Liberal Interpretation

The rule of liberal construction states that a law must be interpreted in the context of the document and in accordance with the intent of the author. 

Literal Rule

In this rule, the court has to consider what the lawmakers are trying to say not what they might mean. It can only be applied if the words of the statute are clear and unambiguous and the language is plain.

Meaning

In this rule, the literal meaning of the words is considered. It is considered that the legislature chose every word deliberately and intended that very word to be legally binding, no other words can be added or used. No modifications can be made while interpreting the statute. It was stated in Nand Prakash Vohra v. State of H.P. if there is nothing to modify and the meaning of the statute is clear then ordinary meaning should be assigned to the words of the statute. 

Case Laws 

Case Law 1: Fisher v Bell

Facts: A shopkeeper was offering to sell offensive weapons. This offer for sale was an offense under the Offensive Weapons Act 1959. 

Decision: The court said that an offer for sale must be interpreted according to its ordinary meaning and the display of the weapon on the shop does not mean offer and is only an invitation to treat. 

Case Law 2: Municipal board v. State Transport Authority Rajasthan

Facts: 

  1. That, the Bus Stand was moved from its location. 
  2. That, an application could be made within 30 days from the date of the order according to section 64A of the Motor Vehicles Act. 
  3. The application was moved after 30 days. 

Defense: The argument was that an application could be made after 30 days from the knowledge of the order. 

Decision and its Basis: The decision given by the Supreme Court stated that the literal meaning of the word should be considered i. e. the application should have been made within 30 days of the order. The court rejected the application. 

Case Law 3: Tata Consultancy Services v. State of A.P

Issue: In this case related to tax, the question before the court was whether computer software can be taxed as goods. 

Judgment: The court stated in the judgment that literal construction should be applied only if there is any ambiguity or inconsistency in the statute otherwise the plain meaning is sufficient. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Rule

Advantages:

  1. The court cannot apply its own bias. 
  2. The rule provides consistency in interpretation. 

Disadvantages:

  1. It creates loopholes in the law. 
  2. It might lead to an absurd result. 
  3. The rule can result in injustice. 

Criticism

This rule assumes that words used in law have a fixed meaning. Words, in fact, are imprecise and their meaning can change over time. 

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Rule of Reasonable Construction 

Legal Maxim: Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pareat which means it is better to give effect to a thing than to declare it void. 

Every law is drafted with a purpose in mind, but if the literal meaning of the law defeats the purpose of the statute, the law should be understood keeping in mind the intention with which it was drafted. The judges should give that interpretation to the law which gives effect to the intention of the legislature. 

In Tirath Singh v. Bachittar Singh, the court stated that if the language of the statute leads to absurdity or injustice then a construction may be put upon it which modifies the meaning of the words used in the statute. 

Golden Rule

This rule states that if the normal meaning of the word given in a statute gives an absurd result then the judges are allowed to deviate from that meaning.

Meaning 

This rule gives the words used in a statute their ordinary meaning. But if that ordinary meaning ends up giving an absurd result which is not according to the intent of the legislature then the judge can give the word a meaning which makes the statute rational. This is done so that the statute can remedy the weakness that it was made to cure. There are two cases,

  1. If the word is a homograph i.e. it has two meanings, then the meaning which is suitable will be given. 
  2. If the word has only one meaning, then the judge can give a completely different meaning. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Rule

Advantages:

  1. It helps to give a rational result. 
  2. It helps in closing any loophole. 
  3. It brings common sense to the law. 

Disadvantages:

  1. Judges have power only in case there is ambiguity. 
  2. Judges cannot add or modify a statute. 

Case Laws

Case Law 1: Grey v. Pearson

In this case, the court stated that usually the literal and normal meaning of the word should be used but if the normal meaning gives an absurd result, then that meaning should be avoided. A different meaning should be given to the word so that the inconvenience can be avoided.

Case Law 2: Adler vs. George

Facts: The defendant, in this case, was charged under the Official Secrets Act, 1920.

The defendant was charged with obstructing a member of the armed forces in the execution of his duty. It was an offense to obstruct a member of the armed forces ‘in the vicinity’ of a prohibited place.

Defense: The defendant argued that he was on the place and not in the vicinity of the place.

Decision: The defendant was found guilty.

Basis for the Decision: The court interpreted the phrase “in the vicinity” to mean on or near the place. On this basis, the defendant was convicted.

Criticism

The idea of absurdity is unclear. It is very difficult to ascertain what would be an absurd result?

Mischief Rule 

It is a principle used for interpreting a statute which states that the court should first examine the intention of the legislature. In this, the judges first find the defect in the statute and then apply the remedy for fixing the defect.

Heydon’s Case 

Heydon’s case is considered a landmark case because it laid down the mischief rule of interpretation of statutes.

Facts: 

  1. That, Ottery college, a religious college gave tenancy in a manor to a man named Ware and his son.
  2. That, the tenancy was given in accordance with the copyhold. A copyhold was a form of landholding in which the land was said to be held according to the will of the lord and customs of the manor.
  3. That, the copyhold given to the Wares was part of a parcel.
  4. That, the parcel was then leased to a man named Heydon.
  5. That, less than a year later, the college was dissolved along with all other religious colleges because of a law that parliament enacted.
  6. That, the law parliament enacted had a provision which kept in force the lease that was granted more than a year before the enactment of the Act. 

Decision: As a result of the provision, the lease granted to the Wares was held valid but the lease granted to Heydon was held to be void.

Basis for Judgement: While making the decision, the court laid down the mischief rule. It was stated in this case that the statute should be constructed by seeking the true intent of the makers of the Act.

The judges stated that four considerations should be kept in mind while interpreting statutes:

  1. The common law that existed before the Act.
  2. The flaw for which common law did not provide.
  3. What remedy did the parliament came up with to resolve & cure the distress of the commonwealth Act?
  4. What was the true reason for the remedy?

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Rule

Advantages:

  1. It focuses on the parliament’s intention behind making the law.
  2. It allows judges to apply their minds.
  3. It allows judges to consider the social and technological changes.
  4. It allows for parliamentary sovereignty.
  5. It helps avoid unjust results.

Disadvantages:

  1. It is difficult to decipher the parliament’s intention.
  2. It is considered as an outdated rule of interpretation.
  3. It makes the law uncertain.
  4. It is said to be undemocratic as it gives too much power to the judiciary which is an unelected branch of the government.

Case Laws

Case Law 1: Smith v. Hughes

In this case, the court examined the mischief behind the concerned Act.

Facts:

  1. That, the defendant was a prostitute living at No. 39 Curzon Street.
  2. That, the defendant used the premises for prostitution.
  3. That, on a certain day, the defendant enticed men passing the street.
  4. That, she solicited the men from her balcony.

Judgment: The decision was made in favor of the plaintiff.

Basis for Judgement: The judges examined the mischief the Street Offences Act aimed to provide a remedy for. It was stated that since the Act was made with the intent of cleaning up the streets, it did not matter if the prostitute solicited men from the street or the balcony. Their decision was based on this ground alone. 

If in this case, if the judges have used the literal meaning of the Act, then it would have been considered that the defendant has not committed an offense. 

Case Law 2: Elliot v Grey

Facts:

  1. That, the defendant’s car was parked on the road.
  2. That, the car was jacked and its battery was removed.
  3. That, the defendant was charged under the Road Traffic Act 1930 because of using an uninsured people on the road.

Arguments: The defendant argued in court that he was not “using” the car as it was parked and not being driven.

Decision: The court did not rule in favor of the defendant.

Basis for the Decision: The court applied the mischief rule and held that the Act under which the defendant was charged was enacted to ensure that people were compensated in case of an incident and the car was being used as it presented a hazard and hence insurance would be required in case of an incident.

Case Law 3: Bengal Immunity Co. v. State of Bihar

In this case, the court interpreted Article 286 of the Constitution of India.

Facts: The theory of territorial nexus led to chaos. On the basis of the theory, provincial legislatures was arbitrarily exercising its taxing powers. 

Judgment: The judge in the case while interpreting the article stated that the Article 286 was made to avoid the mischief of multiple taxation and to preserve the free flow of trade. 

Harmonious Construction

This rule is used when there are two statutes or parts of a statute have a conflict. The interpretation which is consistent with all the provisions and also is in accordance with the intent of the legislature will be adopted. A construction which leads to repugnancy should not be used and the statute should be read as a whole.

Features

  1. The goal should be to make the law whole and consistent.

  2. Two or more statutes can be harmonized by this rule.

  3. The provision of one statute cannot defeat the use of the other statute.

  4. A construction which reduces one part of the statute to nothing is not considered as harmonious.

Case Laws

Case Law 1: Raj Krushna Bose vs Binod Kanungo 

The court stated in this case that whenever possible, two conflicting provisions should be constructed in a way that they harmonize.

Case Law 2: T.M.A. Pai Foundation v. State of Karnataka

The Supreme Court interpreted Articles 29 and 30. The court stated that while interpreting provisions the goal is to achieve full cooperation between laws. The court also stated that:

  1. The laws cannot be read in isolation.
  2. The rule cannot be used if it renders one of the laws redundant.

Case Law 3: CIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carriers

The court stated the following rules for harmonious construction:

Rule 1- The courts should avoid a conflict between provisions. The provisions should be interpreted to create harmony. 

Rule 2-The provision of one section cannot be used to defect the provision of the other section. When it is impossible to reconcile the differences between the provisions then they should be constructed in such a way that effect is given to both the provisions.

Rule 3-The courts must keep in mind that if the construction makes the other statute meaningless or dead then it is not harmonious.

Ejusdem Generis 

This phrase literally translates to “of the same kind and of the same species”. According to this rule, when a specific word is used in the Act and a general word is used afterward, then the general word will be construed in reference to the specific word.

Case Law: Jage Ram v. State of Haryana

To apply this rule, the following conditions must exist:

  1. The statute mentions a number of things one by one by using specific words,
  2. The number of things mentioned should constitute a class,
  3. There are other things in the class that exists, 
  4. A general term is used for the things mentioned, 
  5. There is a distinct genus that comprises of more than one species.

Beneficial Construction 

There are some laws which are specifically made for the benefit of some section of people. Some of these are:

  1. Consumer Protection Act
  2. The Industrial Disputes Act
  3. The Juvenile Justice Act
  4. Factories Act
  5. And other socio-economic legislations 

The rule of beneficial construction states that when there are two meanings of the law and one meaning gives the benefit and other takes it away. The meaning which grants the benefit should be adopted.

Case Laws

Case Law 1: Hindustan Lever Ltd v Ashok Vishnu Kate

The court stated that when a law is enacted for social welfare. The construction which extends the intended benefit to the people should be made.

Case Law 2: Noor Saba Khatoon v. Mohammad Quasim

The Supreme Court held in this case that the provision for maintenance under 125 of Civil Procedure Code and maintenance of children under 2 years are independent of each other and no legislation which is passed subsequent to it can affect the provisions.

Purposive Construction 

This rule interprets law keeping in mind the intent for which it was enacted. In this kind of interpretation, external aids such as commentaries, parliamentary debates, etc. are used. The mischief rule is the foundation for this type of construction. 

Secondary Rules

In addition to the above-stated rules, there are also other rules for interpreting statutes. These other rules are expressed in legal maxims. These are, 

Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius

Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius is a legal maxim which literally translates to the ‘explicit mention of one thing is the exclusion of another’. When a thing is explicitly mentioned in a provision of an Act, then all other things are not considered. 

Contemporanea Expositio Est Optima Et Fortissima in Lege

This rule of construction states that the best explanation of the law would be to read it as it would have been read at the time that it was passed. This rule also considers the surrounding circumstances under which the Act was passed. 

Noscitur a Sociis

The meaning of the word is known from its association. It is a rule of construction which states that the meaning of an unambiguous word or phrase should be considered on the basis of the context in which it was used. 

Aids in Interpretation 

In addition to the rules, interpretation can be made by using aids. There are two kinds of aids for interpreting a statute. These are,

  1. Internal Aids
  2. External Aids

Internal Aids

Internal aids are aids which are first referred to for interpreting a statute. These are present in the statute itself and include:

  1. Preamble of the Act: It has been decided that while preamble may not be a part of the Act. It can be referred to know the mischief for which the Act was enacted. The Supreme Court in Kavalappara Kottarathil Kochuni v. the State Of Madras And Others stated that if an ambiguity arises in the construction of a statute, then the preamble can be referred. 
  2. Title of the Act: The title tells about the purpose of the Act in a concise way and often precedes the preamble of the Act. 
  3. Heading of the Chapter of the Act: An Act is divided into chapters, these chapters deal with different things. What kind of things the chapter deals with can be known by reading the heading of the specific chapter? 
  4. Marginal Notes in the Act: Supreme Court in Sarabjit Rick Singh vs Union Of India stated that reference to marginal notes would be permissible only when the main provision is supposed to be interpreted differently.
  5. The Punctuations in the Provisions of the Act: The punctuations play a very important role in the construction of the provision. 
  6. The Illustrations that supplements the provisions under the Act: Illustrations are valuable as long as they indicate the intent of the legislature. 
  7. Explanations provided of the provision of the Act: Explanations of provisions help in determining what the provision means.
  8. Definitions provided in the Act: Every Act has an interpretation clause which contains important definitions. These definitions may be inclusive or exhaustive. This clause is very important for interpreting various words in a statute. 

External Aids

External aids are used when internal aids are not sufficient to know the meaning of the statute. External aids include, 

  1. Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Bill: When a Bill is passed, its statement of objects and reasons describe the intent of the legislature. 
  2. The Commentaries on the Law by various Authors: Commentaries by various authors are very useful in interpreting a statute. 
  3. Dictionaries: In literal construction, the dictionary meaning of the words is referred to. 
  4. The Circumstances Surrounding the Enactment of the Act: In Commissioner of Income Tax vs. Sodra Devi, the court stated that it was not necessary to refer to any external aid if the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous. 
  5. Reference to Reports of Committee: The reference to reports of Select Committee or Law Commission or any report of any other committee on the basis of which the Act was enacted can be made to interpret the statute. 
  6. Reference to other Statutes: Sometimes other statutes are referred for interpreting a statute.
  7. Parliamentary Debates: Before a Bill is passed it is debated in the parliament. The debates can be referred to know the intent behind a particular provision of the Act. 
  8. History of the Act: The history of the Act along with the surrounding circumstances are helpful in determining the meaning of the provisions of the Act. 
  9. Foreign Decisions: Decisions given by foreign courts can also be used to interpret the law provided that the country has the same system of jurisprudence as ours. The surrounding circumstances in which the Act was enacted and the Indian conditions to which the law applies are considered.
  10. Political, Social and Economic Developments: Developments that affect the very structure of society also help in interpreting a statute.

Conclusion

Thus, the interpretation of statutes is an important process. Moreover, it is essential that the interpretation is done according to the various rules prescribed. The rules should be followed to ensure that judges do not arbitrability exercise the responsibility that they are entrusted with. 

References

  1. https://www.lawctopus.com/academike/mischief-rule-statutory-interpretation/
  2. http://www.studylecturenotes.com/social-sciences/law/155-interpretation-law
  3. http://lawtimesjournal.in/contemporanea-expositio-est-optima-et-fortissima-in-lege/
  4. https://india.lawi.asia/contemporanea-expositio-est-optima-et-fortissima-in-lege/

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