RULES OF INTERPRETATION OF STATUTE: with case laws.

INTRODUCTION

The Judiciary has a principal and substantive function to implement the laws and administer justice which is done with aid of rules of interpretation of statute. A court while performing its function come to certain inferences and deliver verdicts, certainly, this is done by applying the laws which are enacted by the legislature. The law, rules, or regulations are drafted by legal experts and generally have a plain meaning, however, there is room left for the interpretation of statutes which are ambiguous or subtle.

In order to conquer such ambiguity in any statute the court has to abide by the rules of the interpretation of statute. While interpreting the courts need to ascertain the true meaning of the statute and the intent of the legislature this makes the process of interpretation of the statute a necessary tool for the better administration of justice and for resolving the inconsistencies.   

MEANING OF INTERPRETATION OF STATUTE

The term interpretation has been derived from the Latin term “interpretari” which means to explain, expound, clarify, or evaluate. The courts may run into unidentified, ambiguous, or equivocal provisions while applying laws to resolve any lis, as a result, the judiciary has formulated the process of interpretation of statute to settle such ambiguity and determine the plain meaning of the statute. 

DEFINITION 

Salmond– “Interpretation” is the process by which the court seeks to ascertain the meaning of the legislature by the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed. 

Blackstone– The most fair and rational method for interpreting a statute is by exploring the intention of the legislature through texts, the subject matter, the effect and consequence, or the spirit and the reason of the law. 

How interpretation is different from construction?

Cooley explained_                                                            

Interpretation differs from the construction in that the former is the art of finding out the true sense of any form of words; i.e., the sense which their author is intended to convey; and of enabling others to derive from them the same idea which the author intended to convey. Construction, on the other hand, is the drawing of conclusions, respecting subjects that lie beyond the direct expression of the text from the elements known from and given in the text; conclusions which are in spirit though not within the letter of the law.” [i]

         (Emphasis supplied)

This distinction is not largely accepted and both interpretation of statute and construction of statute have the same significance and are used interchangeably. In the present work also, both are used as synonyms hereinafter. 

OBJECTIVE OF INTERPRETATION

When the law is clear and explicit there is no need for the rules of interpretation. When applying any law, courts may find more than one meaning of a word or provision their court has to evaluate the true intent behind the legislation. The Courts try to decode the express or implied meaning of the law in the interest of justice so that different meanings or ambiguity will not altogether defeat the purpose of the statute. 

The essence of law lies in the spirit, not in its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it.” – Salmond

The above statement emphasizes determining the true meaning or spirit of the laws. The law should be interpreted effectively to secure its purpose and deliver justice. 

Before delving into the rules of interpretation of the statute it is important to comprehend what is a statute, its parts or/and what are its kinds. When the court interprets any law, it will scrutinize the parts of the statute to determine its true meaning or to comprehend, the intent of the lawmakers. The Judge will read an Act as a whole and not separately to identify the true or literal meaning therefore every part of a statute is significant. 

What is a statute?

A statute is a will of the legislature or an authority thereby presented through text. The constitution of India gives an inclusive definition of the term “law” instead of “statute”. 

Article 13 (3)(a) “Law includes any ordinance, order, by-law, rule, regulation, custom or usage having the force of law”. 

The constitution of India, Article 246 embedded power to enact the laws into both central and state legislature. Such power should be regulated by taking into account Schedule VII of the Constitution which specifies three lists namely the Union list, State list, and Concurrent list. Both central and state legislature can enact the laws concerning subjects enumerated in the Concurrent list. The purpose behind adding this schedule for the division of power is to maintain harmony, unity, and integrity of the nation and for the smooth functioning of the federal state. 

CLASSIFICATION OF STATUTE 

  1. Based on duration: Perpetual statute, temporary statute.
    • Perpetual statute– That law which remains in force until repealed. 
    • Temporary statute– The law which remains in force for a specified time and may also be repealed earlier.
  2.  Based on nature: Prospective statute, Retrospective statute, Directory statute, Mandatory statute.
    • Prospective statute– When any law is applicable on the acts or transactions which transpired after such law came into existence and not on the events that occurred before its enactment. 
    • Retrospective statute- When the law operates all the events that occurred before or after the enactment of the statutes is retrospective. The significance of Article 13(1) and (2) of the Constitution comes into the picture while considering the retrospective or prospective laws. Article 13 paves the way to Judicial Review by which the Court can infer some statute as unconstitutional if the court finds the law inconsistent with or in derogation of Part III of the Constitution i.e., Fundamental rights. Article 13(1) is concerning the laws in force before the commencement of the Constitution if inconsistent, shall be void. Article 13 (2) is concerning the law which is enacted after the commencement of the constitution shall also be void if inconsistent.
    • Mandatory statute- The law which compels the performance of certain acts or omissions in a specific manner. 
  3. Based on object: Enabling statute, disabling statute, prohibitory statute, codifying statute, consolidating statute, permissive statute, curative and validating statute, repealing statute, amending statute, penal statute. 
    • Enabling statute- This sort of law will make something lawful that otherwise is not lawful. In statute enables the state to carry out certain policies, this is not the right of a person but more of a power of the state. For instance, reservation laws/affirmative action, Article 15(4) enable the state to make the laws for the advancement of the social and educational backward class or SC/ST. However, no one can approach the court and plead to compel the state to exercise such power by enacting such laws. 
    • Disabling Statute- This law restricts the rights existing in the common law. 
    • Prohibitory Statute- This type of law is enacted to forbid some illegal acts for instance, drinking and driving is prohibited. Lawmakers keep a balance between prohibition and personal liberty. 
    • Codifying statute- That subject which is in practice but not written will be confined in one code and get the sanction of the authority. Such as The Hindu Marriage Act 1955, Succession Act 1956, and other codified personal laws.
    • Consolidating statute- The purpose of such law is to confine one subject in one code, irrespective of different or scattered acts. The original and subsequent issues on the same subject are consolidated in such enactments. Such as The IPC, Civil procedure code, Criminal Procedure code, etc. 
    • Repealing Statute- This statute is to revoke any existing statute. 
    • Amending statute- This law is enacted to amend or to add something to any existing law, for instance, to make any amendment in the Constitution of India every time there will be enactment of the amending statute under article 368

AIDS OF INTERPRETATION OF STATUTE

Aid is a tool that assists a Judge in the construction of any law, the court will turn to either Internal aid (within the statute) or External Aid (other than the statute)

  1.  Internal aids: Title of a statute, long title, Preamble, marginal notes, headings, illustrations, explanation, definition clause, saving clause, proviso, exception. 
  2. External Aids: Dictionaries, textbooks, parliamentary debates, and speech, committee reports, foreign laws, and judgments.

Rules of interpretation of statute

The literal rule

This rule is also known as the “Plain reading rule”. This name itself suggests that the court has to read the law plain, as it is. When there is no ambiguity court will opt for literal rule regardless of the consequences. The main criteria behind this rule is that the intention of the legislature is to be ascertained from the text of the statute, and the court has nothing to do with the consequence. 

If the provision is unambiguous and legislative intent is clear, the court will not invoke any other rule of construction.  

Maqbool Hussain vs. State of Bombay[ii]: In this appellant was carrying gold at the airport in contravention of the notification of the government of India, the Customs Authorities thereupon took action against him under section 167(8) of the Sea Customs Act, as a result, his gold was confiscated. Subsequently, he was charged with having committed an offense under section 8 of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, of 1947. 

An appeal was filed by the appellant wherein he contended that his fundamental right Article 20(2) has been abrogated as he has been already prosecuted and punished for the same offense by the Customs Authority and cannot be prosecuted again for the same offense again. 

The question that arises for the determination in the present case was whether article 20(2) i.e., Double Jeopardy, was abridged as contended. This principle says that no man shall be prosecuted for the same offense twice. The Court was of the view that proceedings under article 20(2) are proceedings before the ‘court of law or judicial proceedings. The Court further held that the proceeding before the Sea Custom Authorities was not “prosecution” and confiscation was not “punishment” inflicted by the judicial court within article 20(2) therefore prosecution under Foreign Exchange Regulation Act is not barred. 

Lalita Kumari vs. Govt. of U.P & Ors.[iii] (Landmark judgment): The question before the apex court was concerning the interpretation of section 154 of the Crpc, wherein it is engrafted that police officer must register an F.I.R. on receiving the information of commission any cognizable offense. The court was of the view that section leaves no room for the discretion of the police officer to conduct a preliminary enquiry before registration of such F.I.R. The court inferred that the language of the section is unambiguous and by the term “shall” the intent of the legislature is also clear there is no need of the court to apply any other rule of the interpretation of statute. The Court should not hold the view variant with the intent of the legislature and plain reading of the section should always be preferred unless interpretation induces some absurd consequences. The Hon’ble Court also set certain guidelines that should be complied with for the mandatory registration of F.I.R. in case of cognizable offenses.

                                                                                (Emphasis supplied)

Golden Rule 

It is also known as Wensleydale’s golden rule as it was asserted by Lord Wensleydale[iv]. When literal rule will induce absurdity or inconsistency and does not advance the motive behind the statute then the golden rule comes into play. This rule expounds that when the plain meaning of the statute deviates from the motive of the Act then the court will take a step further and use other rules to construe the statute to accomplish the intent of the lawmakers. 

Kehar Singh vs. State (Delhi Adm.) [v] This case is concerning a very unfortunate happening wherein the former Prime Minister of India was assassinated by her own security guards and the accused were convicted and sentenced to death. Supreme Court has enunciated that:

230. …………... In the past, judges and lawyers spoke of a “golden rule” by which statutes were to be interpreted according to the grammatical and ordinary sense of the word. They took the grammatical or literal meaning unmindful of the consequences. Even if such a meaning gave rise to unjust results which the legislature never intended, the grammatical meaning alone was kept to prevail. They said that it would be for the legislature to amend the Act and not for the court to intervene by its innovation.
231. During the last several years, the “golden rule” has been given a go-by. We now look for the “intention” of the legislature or the “purpose” of the statute. First, we examine the words of the statute. If the words are precise and cover the situation in hand, we do not go further. We expound those words in the natural and ordinary sense of the words. But, if the words are ambiguous, uncertain or any doubt arises as to the terms employed, we deem it as our paramount duty to put upon the language of the legislature rational meaning. We then examine every word, every section, and every provision. We examine the Act as a whole. We examine the necessity which gave rise to the Act. We look at the mischiefs which the legislature intended to redress. We look at the whole situation and not just one-to-one relations. We will not consider any provision out of the framework of the statute. We will not view the provisions as abstract principles separated from the motive force behind. We will consider the provisions in the circumstances to which they owe their origin. We will consider the provisions to ensure coherence and consistency within the law as a whole and to avoid undesirable consequences[vi].

            (Emphasis Supplied)

Mischief Rule 

This rule is also known as Heydon’s rule as it originated in Heydon’s case in 1584. This rule is to be applied only when the meaning of the law is subtle, the interpretation which subserves the intent of the legislature should be preferred. 

According to Lord Coke, four things are to be considered when administering this rule:

  1. What was the common law before the making of the Act?
  2. What was the mischief or the defect which the common law does not provide?
  3. What is the remedy that the legislature has sought and appointed to cure the defect /disease of the commonwealth?
  4.  The true reason for the remedy. 

This rule directs the judge to construe a statute in such a manner that it ‘shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy’. However, the court should not go beyond the plain meaning of the law as the court has the power only to interpret and not to legislate, which is the power of the legislature. There is a saying in law that ‘court can supplement and not supplant’ thus court cannot add something new to the law itself while interpreting and should stick to the intent of the legislature. All the organs of the government have to maintain checks and balances, along with the separation of power. 

Smith vs. Huhges[vii] In this case prostitutes were soliciting in the streets of London which caused problems in maintaining law and order. The street offences act, 1959 was enacted to prohibit the same. Thereafter prostitutes were charged under section 1(1) of the said Act, the prostitute contended that they are not soliciting from the streets but from the windows and balconies. Judge was of the discretion that term streets include the windows and the balconies as the objective behind the statute is to forbid any solicitation. Therefore, the mischief rule should be applied to decode the intent of the legislature. 

One recent significant judgment where the court employed mischief rule is Vivek Narayan Sharma and others vs. Union of India and others[viii] wherein the apex court majority ruling was notification dated 08.11.2016 (date of demonetization) is valid and satisfied the test of proportionality. Court also adjudged that the procedure prescriber under section 26(2) was not violated simply because the central government had taken the initiative instead of RBI central board for recommending the demonetization. From para 133 to 148 referred the purposive interpretation or the mischief rule. 

The hon’ble court articulated that “an interpretation which advances the purpose of Act and which ensures its smooth and harmonious working must be chosen and the other which leads to absurdity, or confusion, or friction or, contradiction and conflict between its various provisions, or undermines or tend to defeat or destroy the basic scheme and purpose of the enactment must be eschewed. [ix]

(Emphasis Supplied)

Rule of Harmonious Construction

This rule contemplates that whenever there is any conflict among the provision or the statutes, the court should prefer such construction that would induce harmony and which will give effect to both the provisions or statutes as the case may be. The provision should not be read in isolation but as a whole so that it will not render any statute inoperative or meaningless and will not wipe out the intent of the makers.  

Sri Sankari Prasad Singh Deo vs Union of India [x]  The rule of harmonious construction can be traced back from this case which was concerning the conflict between article 13 and Article 368. The discord for consideration before the apex court was ‘whether the term “law” under Article 13 Clause 3(a) would include a constitutional amendment ordained by exercising the constitutional amendment power under Article 368 which is different from the ordinary legislative power. The hon’ble court squarely opined that_

…. Harmonious construction requires that one should be read as controlled and qualified by the other. “law" must be taken to mean rules or regulations made in the exercise of ordinary legislative power and not amendments to the Constitution made in the exercise of constituent power….

(Emphasis Supplied)

Kesavananda Bharati vs. State of Kerala and anr[xi]. (Landmark judgment)

In the said landmark verdict apex court opined that the state should implement the “Directive principles of the state policies” in part IV of the constitution however it should not be to the extent that abridges the “Fundamental Rights” in part III of the constitution. The apex court inferred that harmonious construction should be adopted to ensure the smooth functioning of the constitution and to eschew any sort of absurdity. 

Strict or Literal and Liberal Rule of Interpretation:

Strict interpretation means word-to-word interpretation courts do not go beyond the statute. Liberal rule of interpretation of statute is invoked when the court construes in a wider sense to advance the objective of the statute and not to frustrate the purpose of the law under consideration. By and large, the court may tender literal construction while construing strictly and will bring in the golden rule or any other above-stated rules when construing liberally. 

The only reason behind such preferences for the rule of interpretation of statute is to give effect to legislative intent. 

Babua Ram v. State of U.P.[xii]

30. …. Whether liberal or strict construction will be given depends largely upon a finding whether the given determinate was intended from the alternative part of the statute, the type, and its nature. Often in some statutes if the same parts are subjected to different types of construction, whether liberal or strict construction is a means by which the scope of the statute is expounded or restricted in order to convey the legislative meaning.…….

Ejusdem Generis

It is a Latin term that means “of the same kind”. This is one of the rules of interpretation of statute which is administered when in a statute general words or phrases follow a specific word or phrases. In other words, the general words which follow specific words should be construed as referring to the same class as specific words. 

Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius

It is a Latin phrase that means “expression of one thing is the exclusion of the other thing”. This principle articulates that if the statute permits one thing it denies another for instance citizens have the right to vote therefore here only citizens are included and the rest non-citizens are excluded. Otherwise, also there are several Fundamental Rights that are guaranteed only to the citizens and not to non-citizens. The benefit of the statute should not be lengthened ahead of the intent of the legislature as the legislature is empowered to enact the laws, not the judiciary. The courts can interpret the laws to fill the gaps but cannot amend them, as it will defy the intent of the legislature and it will entrench the principle of separation of powers. 

Noscitur a sociis

This Latin term for construction of statute means in case of any ambiguity the sense of the word should be ascertained from near or associated words. Lately, the Delhi High Court has scrutinized the difference between maxim “noscitur a sociis and ejusdem generis” in:

 Brijesh Gupta v. Saroj Gupta[xiii]         

The difference is that the ejusdem generis principle applies where the specific words accompanying a general word constitute a genus. If they constitute a genus, the general word would also have to be restricted to the genus which forms part of the accompanying words. If the accompanying words do not constitute a genus, then the noscitur a sociis principle would apply, and the general word would have to be understood in the light of the meaning of the words with which it is associated in the statute.

Ut res magis valeat quam pereat

It is a Latin construction that means “It may rather become operative than null”. In case of two interpretations, this rule directs the court to be prone to that construction that makes statute effective and operative, instead of that construction which will render the law futile. 

Conclusion

From the present work, it could be concluded that each organ of the state has to exercise its power and perform its function as embedded in the Constitution. The function of the Courts is to interpret the law and for which courts have to abide by the aforementioned rules to accomplish the intent of the legislature, and purpose of the statute. The rules of interpretation of statute should not be employed to the extent that it transgresses the principle of separation of power which is itself part of the Basic structure and obviously which is undisputedly inviolable. To learn any statute comprehensively it is equally significant to acknowledge the process of construction or interpretation of those statutes.


[i] Cooley, Constitution Limitations, Vol. I pg. 97 

[ii]  1953 AIR 325

[iii] (2014)1 SCC 524

[iv] Grey vs Pearson (1857)

[v] (1988)3 SCC 609

[vi] Supra

[vii] (1960) 1 W.L.R 830

[viii] (2023) 3 SCC 1

[ix]  Supra

[x] 1951 SCC 966

[xi] (1973) 4 SCC 225

[xii] (1995) 2 SCC 689

[xiii] 2022 SCC Online Del 4413

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