Principles of Interpretation of Statutes




The interpretation of laws is confined to courts of law. In course of time, courts have evolved a large and elaborate body of rules to guide them in construing or interpreting laws. Most of them have been collected in books on interpretation of statutes and the draftsman would be well advised to keep these in mind in drafting Acts. Some Interpretation Acts, like the Canadian one , lay down that every Act shall be deemed remedial and shall accordingly receive such fair, large and liberal construction and interpretation as will best ensure the attainment of the object of the Act according to its true intent, meaning and spirit. The object of all such rules or principles as aforesaid broadly speaking, is to ascertain the true intent, meaning and spirit of every statute. A statute is designed to be workable, and the interpretation thereof by a court should be to secure that object, unless crucial omission or clear direction makes that unattainable.





The primary and important rule of interpretation is called the Literal Rule, laid down in the Sussex Peerage Case.

This rule stated that: “The only rule for the construction of Acts of Parliament is, that they should be construed according to the intent of the Parliament which passed the Act. If the words of the statute are in themselves precise and unambiguous, then no more can be necessary than to expound those words in their natural and ordinary sense. The words themselves alone do, in such case; best declare the intention of the lawgiver. But if any doubt arises from the terms employed by the Legislature, it has always been held a safe mean of collecting the intention to call in aid the ground and cause of making the statute, and to have recourse to the preamble, which, according to Chief Justice Dyer is “a key to open the minds of the makers of the Act, and the mischiefs which they intend to redress”.


The literal rule, in its purest form, has an inflexibility which places particular strain on the drafts person, requiring language which expressly covers all eventualities. This extreme inflexibility can be seen in the words of Lord lisher MR in R. v. The Judge of the City of London Court where he stated that “if the words of an Act are clear you must follow them, even though they lead to manifest absurdity. The Court has nothing to do with the question whether the Legislature has committed an absurdity. This means that only the words of the statute count; if they are clear by themselves then effect must be given to them. This rule also has its drawbacks; it disregards consequences and the object of the statute may be considered only if there is doubt. It should be noted, however, that the object of a statute and the circumstances that led to its enactment are always relevant-not just in cases of doubt. When the words of a statute are clear, plain or unambiguous, i.e. they are reasonably susceptible to only one meaning, the Courts are bounds to give effect to that meaning irrespective of consequences. Statutory enactment must be construed according to its plain meaning and no words shall be added, altered or modified unless it is plainly necessary to do so to prevent a provision from being unintelligible, absurd, unreasonable, unworkable or totally irreconcilable with the test of the statute.



The Mischief Rule laid by the Barons of the Exchequer in the Heydon’s case as follows, namely-

“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:

(1) What was the common law before the making of the Act?

(2) What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide?

(3) What remedy the Parliament have resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth.

(4) The true reason of the remedy and then 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 the continuance of the mischief and pro private 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.”

That was the beginning of what is now often referred to as the purpose approach or the Mischief Rule. In India the rule was explained by the Supreme Court in Bengal Immunity Co. v. State of Bihar. This rule was again applied in GoodyearIndia Ltd. v. State of Haryana. In GIT v. Sodra Devi, the Supreme Court (Bhagwad J) expressed the view that the rule in Hejdon’s case is applicable only when the words in question are ambiguous and are reasonably capable of more than one meaning.

Gajendragadkar J in Kanailal Sur v. Parmanidhf pointed out that the recourse to consideration of the mischief and defect which the Act purports to remedy is only permissible when the language is capable of two constructions. The Supreme Court in P.H.K. Kalliani Amma (SmtJ v. K. DevP referred extensively to the rule in Hejdon’s case and to the opinions of Bhagwad J. and Gajendragadkar J. Thus in the construction of an Act of Parliament, it is important to consider the mischief that led to the passing of the Act and then give effect to the remedy as stated by the Act in order to achieve its object. This has its drawbacks; the language of the statute may have inadequately expressed the objective intended to be achieved.



The next development came with Grey v. Pearson. The rule enunciated in that case came to be known as the ‘golden rule'; a court could construe a statute by departing from the literal meaning of the words if to do would avoid consequences which are absurd. It stated that, “In construing wills, and indeed statutes and all written instruments, the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless that would lead to some absurdity, or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument, in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no further.

The golden rule is still referred to by the courts today as a means of modifying stringent application of the literal rule. It was set out by Lord Blackburn in River Wear Commissioners v, Adamson. The golden rule, he stated, enabled the courts: “to take the whole statute together, and construe it all together, giving their words their ordinary significance, unless when so applied they produce an inconsistency, or an absurdity or inconvenience so great as to convince the court that the intention could not have been to use them in their ordinary significance, and to justify the court in putting on them some other signification, which, though less proper, is one which the court thinks the words will bear.”

Affirming this rule Lord Simon of Glaisdale in Suthendran v. Immigration Appeal Tribunal, has said:

“Parliament is prima facie to be credited with meaning what is said in an Act of Parliament. The drafting of statutes, so important to a people who hope to live under the rule of law, will never be satisfactory unless courts seeks whenever possible to apply ‘the golden rule’ of construction, that is to read the statutory language, grammatically and terminologically, in the ordinary and primary sense which it bears in its context, without omission or addition. Of course, Parliament is to be credited with good sense; so that when such an approach produce s injustice, absurdity, contradiction or stultification of statutory objective the language may be modified sufficiently to avoid such disadvantage, though no further”.

The rule stated above have been quoted with approval by the Supreme Court in Harbhajan Singh v. Press Council of India wherein the Court observed:

“Legislature chooses appropriate words to express what it intends, and therefore, must be attributed with such intention as is conveyed by the words employed so long as this does not result in absurdity or anomaly or unless material-intrinsic or external-is available to permit a departure from the rule.”

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