Interpretation Of Statutes

Mar11,2021 #Judiciary #Statutes

Shruti Lamba


“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 quote indicates the significance of the intent of lawmakers, rather than their visible expression in form of words written, of a law. To enact a law effectively so that it serves its purpose it is important to interpret it in the spirit with which it was framed. The act of determining its true sense is called interpretation of statute. And to facilitate this process of interpretation various theories, presumptions, aids, rules and principles have been formulated over the period.

What is Interpretation?

The term interpretation is derived from a Latin term “interpretari” which means to explain, infer, expound or translate. The process of ascertaining the actual intended meaning of a written document by giving its words their ordinary meaning is called interpretation. In other words, interpretation is the process to ascertain the true meaning of the words written in a legal document.

What is Statute?

In literal sense, “Statute” means a law that has been formally approved and written down. In its legal sense, it means an act of a legislature that declares, prescribes, or commands something. Statutes set forth general propositions of law that court applies to the specific situations.

Thus following can be listed as Statute: Constitution, Central Acts, State Acts, Ordinance, Bye Laws, Rules, Regulations, Notifications, Circulars, Instructions, Directions, Clarifications.

What is meant by Interpretation of Statutes?

Out of the three organs of the State, viz Legislative, Executive and Judiciary, interpreting the statutes is primarily concerned with Judiciary. Being the machinery that puts the laws laid down by legislature into use, it becomes primary function of Judiciary to interpret the statutes and ascertain the correct meaning of the provisions of the statutes in their true spirit as intended by the framers.

Salmond defines the interpretation of statutes as “interpretation or construction is the process by which the courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislation through the medium of the authoritative form in which it is expressed.”

Scope and need for Interpretation

Statutes enacted are drafted by legal experts, thus leaving little room for interpretation of the of the language used but the necessity of interpretation arises when the language is not clear or ambiguous or when multiple views can be inferred or when the language of the provision gives a different meaning altogether which defeats the object of the statute.

A Constitutional Bench of Supreme Court in R.S. Nayak v AR Antulay, AIR 1984 SC 684 held that:

“……If words of the Statute are clear and unambiguous, it is the plainest duty of the Court to give effect to the natural meaning of the words used in the provision. The question of construction arises only in the event of an ambiguity or the plain meaning of the words used in the Statute would be self-defeating.”

Following the same principle Supreme Court in Grasim Industries Ltd. V Collector of Customs, Bombay, (2002)4 SCC 297 observed that:

“where the words are clear and there is no obscurity, and there is no ambiguity and the intention of the legislature is clearly conveyed, there is no scope for the Court to take upon itself the task of amending or altering the statutory provisions.”

The interpretation is required for two basic reasons viz. to ascertain:

  1. Legislative Language: Since the Statutes are drafted by Legal experts using Legislative and technical Language, it can be complicated and complex for layman to understand it and hence interpretation is required to simplify and explain the provisions to the layman.
  2. Legislative Intent: The Legislative Intent comprises of two-fold aspects as to:
    1. Concept of ‘meaning’, i.e., what the word means;
    2. Concept of ‘object’ and ‘purpose’ or ‘spirit’ or the ‘reason’ pervading throughout the Statute.

The interpretation of statutes is needed:

  1. To infer clear and precise meanings where multiple meanings can be inferred from the language used.
  2. To fill the gaps in law: it is impossible for the lawmakers to draft the law anticipating all the possible scenarios that could arise in future and this impossibility leads to use of indeterminate language and Courts from time to time have to interpret such indeterminate language according to the present scenarios. For example: use of word “reasonable” in the provisions, Courts interpret and define the word reasonable now and then according to changing times.
  3. To decide the most correct use of language: words may have multiple meanings and each party in the Court will tend to infer the meaning which is advantageous to itself, so courts interpret in the most correct manner and there by establishing its uniform use too and ensuring uniform impart of justice.


  • The Statute must be read as an entire context.
  • The intention of the framers of the legislation should be kept in mind.
  • Interpretation should be such as to make the Statute meaningful, effective and workable.
  • The process of construing should be literal as well as purposive i.e., one should shift from literal meaning if it leads to absurdity.


The Courts are conferred with the crucial function of interpretation of the statutes and give meaning to them in a way to make them workable and useable. Imparting this crucial function, the courts cannot act arbitrarily because this will lead to number of interpretations leading to discord in the process of imparting equal justice. To ensure uniformity, the Courts have evolved certain principles and rules for interpretation over the period of time and have been applied by the Courts from time to time.

Primary Rules of Interpretation have been discussed here under:


The cardinal rule of interpretation is to give the words their natural, original and exact meaning, given that the words are clear and keeping in mind the object of the statute. The rule states that the provisions should be examined in their literal sense and be given their natural effect. This rule is also known as Plain Reading Rule i.e., the provisions should be read as it is and there should not be any addition or substitution of words while interpreting.

The plain meaning of the rule can be stated as:

“what the law says rather than what the law means”

But even while giving such literal meaning the object of the statute as a whole must be kept in mind. The same has been quoted by Viscount Haldane that “if the language used has natural meaning, we cannot depart from that meaning unless, reading the statute as a whole, the context directs us to do so.”

It was held in the case of Tata Consultancy Services v. State of A.P. (2005) 1 SCC 308 that:

“A literal construction would not be denied only because the consequences to comply with the same may lead to penalty. The courts should not be over zealous in searching for ambiguities or obscurities in words which are plain.”

Following conditions must be understood to understand the literal rule:

  • The statute must in its interpretation section provide for special meanings of the terms (i.e. the definition sections).
  • If not provided by the statutes then technical words be given ordinary technical meanings.
  • Words may not be inserted by implications.
  • With course of time words may undergo shifts in their meanings.
  • It should be kept in mind that words acquire significance from their context.

This rule somehow restricts the process of interpretation and even makes it inflexible in its purest form. And other criticism to this rule is that it rests on the assumption that words have fixed meaning, which is erroneous as a single word may have multiple meanings in reference to different contexts it is used in.


The mischief rule focuses on determining the intent of the lawmakers while interpreting. The rule was originated in United Kingdom in 16th century and was set out in Heydon’s case and it was held that the main aim while interpretation a statute should be to determine the “mischief and defect” that the statute set out to give ruling for implementing the effective remedy. This rule basically tries to answer the question as to what was the mischief which previous law could not cover and which subsequently lead to formation of the given statute in question.

The Heydon’s Case (1584)3 CO REP laid four points that needs to be considered while interpreting a statute, namely:

  1. What was the common law before the drafting of the Act?
  2. What was the “mischief and defect” that the common law did not issue for?
  3. What remedy the parliament had resolved to cure the disease of the commonwealth?
  4. What is the authentic reason of the remedy?

The use of this rule provides a judge more room to effectively decide on lawmaker’s intent rather than being bound by the literal and golden rule.

The rule is criticized on the basis that it makes the laws uncertain and also confers to the more power to the unelected judiciary which is objected being undemocratic. And also, it is considered out of date as common law is no longer primary source of law now.


This rule is also known as “British Rule”. This rule provides flexibility in the process of interpretation by providing the scope of deviating from the natural meaning of the word in order to avoid absurdity. In other words, this rule allows a judge to depart from the actual meaning of a word in case where construing the actual meaning leads to absurd result.

This rule almost overcomes the shortcomings of the Literal Rule and Mischief Rule. It provides a compromise between the two rules by giving words their plain ordinary meaning generally but providing room to depart when it leads to irrational result not in consonance to the Legislative Intent.

In case of homographs, if a word has multiple meanings then the judge can apply the most preferred meaning. At same time, if a word has only one meaning but using it would lead to bad decision then the judge can apply a completely different meaning altogether.

The rule may be used in narrow as well as wide sense. When the rule is applied where the words are ambiguous themselves, it is said to be narrow use of the rule and this is the most frequently use of the rule. When the rule is applied to avoid obnoxious results to public policy, it is said to be used in wide sense.


This rule is adopted when there is conflict between two or more statutes or two or more parts of the same statute. The rule states that in case of conflict the provisions should be construed in a manner to harmonize them in a way that effect is given to both the provisions as much as possible. The rule is based on the premise that each statute has a purpose and it should be read as a whole and all the provisions should be interpreted consistently. The interpretation should not render one provision useless and cannot use one provision to defeat other provisions, unless and until there is way to reconcile the differences.

In case of CIT V Hindustan Bulk Carriers AIR 2002 SC 3941, Supreme Court laid down that:

“the courts must avoid head on clash of seemingly contradicting provisions and they must construe the contradictory provisions so as to harmonize them.”


The interpretation is an ongoing process and is a crucial part of Courts’ everyday workings. The principles and rules of interpretation have not been legally defined or stated anywhere, these have been evolved by the Courts over the years of practice. These rules provide a consistent framework to interpret the component parts, divisions, sections, sub-sections and other segments of a statute. It is duty of the courts to act according to this consistent framework in order to deliver decision as per the true intent of legislature. So, the statutes should be interpreted according to the framework of principles and rules evolved, to ensure effective and uniform enforcement of laws and avoid miscarriage of justice. The courts should apply the best fitted rule of interpretation from the various rules evolved to decide the case and impart justice.


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