Introduction, Meaning and Nature of Interpretation

By | April 2, 2017
Nature of Interpretation

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Introduction, Meaning and Nature of Interpretation | Overview


Enacted laws, especially the modern acts and rules, are drafted by legal experts and it could be expected that the language used will leave little room for interpretation or construction. But the experience of all those who have to bear and share the task of application of the law has been different.[1]

Interpretation means the art of finding out the true sense of enactment by giving the words of the enactment their natural and ordinary meaning. It is the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in a statute. The Court is not expected to interpret arbitrarily and therefore there have been certain principles which have evolved out of the continuous exercise by the Courts. These principles are sometimes called ‘rules of interpretation’.

The object of interpretation of statutes is to determine the intention of the legislature conveyed expressly or impliedly in the language used. As stated by SALMOND, “by interpretation or construction is meant, the process by which the courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed.”

Elaborate rules of interpretation were evolved even at a very early stage of Hindu civilization and culture. The rules given by ‘Jaimini’, the author of Mimamsat Sutras, originally meant for srutis were employed for the interpretation of Smritis also.[2]

In the process of interpretation, several aids are used. They may be statutory or non-statutory. Statutory aids may be illustrated by the General Clauses Act, 1897 and by specific definitions contained in individuals Acts whereas non-statutory aids are illustrated by common law rules of interpretation (including certain presumptions relating to interpretation) and also by case-laws relating to the interpretation of statutes.

Meaning and Definition of Interpretation

According to Salmond interpretation or construction is the process by which the courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed.” [3] It has been said that there is a distinction between the two expressions. As explained by Cooley: “Interpretation differs from construction in the sense that the former is the art of finding out the true sense of any form of words; i.e. the sense that their author intended to convey. Construction on the other hand, is the drawing of conclusions, respecting the subjects that lie beyond the direct expression of the text.[4] This distinction has been widely criticized.

Interpretation of statute is the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in a statute. When the language of the statute is clear, there is no need for the rules of interpretation. But, in certain cases, more than one meaning may be derived from the same word or sentence. It is, therefore, necessary to interpret the statute to find out the real intention of the statute.

Interpretation of Statutes is required for two basic reasons:-

  1. Legislative Language – Legislative language may be complicated for a layman, and hence may require interpretation; and
  2. Legislative Intent – The intention of the legislature or Legislative intent assimilates two aspects: a. the concept of ‘meaning’, i.e., what the word means; and b. the concept of ‘purpose’ and ‘object’ or the ‘reason’ or ‘spirit’ pervading through the statute.

Some Important Points to be taken care of in the context of interpreting Statutes:

  • The intention of the legislature.
  • The statute must be read as a whole in its Context.
  • The statute should be construed so as to make it Effective and Workable – if a statutory provision is ambiguous and capable of various constructions, then that construction must be adopted which will give meaning and effect to the other provisions of the enactment rather than that which will give none.
  • If meaning is plain, the effect must be given to it irrespective of consequences.
  • The process of construction combines both literal and purposive approaches. The purposive construction rule highlights that you should shift from literal construction when it leads to absurdity.

Scope and Nature of Interpretation

The necessity of interpretation would arise only where the language of a statutory provision is ambiguous, not clear or where two views are possible or where the provision gives a different meaning defeating the object of the statute.

If the language is clear and unambiguous, no need for interpretation would arise. In this regard, a Constitution Bench of five Judges of the Supreme Court in R.S. Nayak v A.R. Antulay,[5] has held:

“… If the 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.”

Again Supreme Court in Grasim Industries Ltd. v Collector of Customs, Bombay[6], has followed the same principle and observed:

“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 court to take upon itself the task of amending or altering the statutory provisions.”

The purpose of Interpretation of Statutes is to help the Judge to ascertain the intention of the Legislature – not to control that intention or to confine it within the limits, which the Judge may deem reasonable or expedient.

The correct is one that best harmonises the words with the object of the statute.[7]As stated by Iyer J. “to be literal in meaning is to see the skin and miss the soul. The judicial key of construction is the composite perception of the deha and the dehi of the provision.”[8]

According to Blackstone the fairest and rational method for interpreting a statute is by exploring the intention of the Legislature through the most natural and probable signs which are ‘either the words, the context, the subject-matter, the effects and consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law’.[9]

Citations and References

[1] Keshav Mills Co. Ltd. v. CIT. AIR 1965 SC 1636, p. 1644

[2] Law Commission of India, 60th Report, Chapter 2, para 2.2

[3] Salmond, Jurisprudence, 11th Edition, p. 152

[4] Cooley, Constitutional limitations, Vol. 1, p. 97

[5] AIR 1984 SC 684

[6] 2002)4 SCC 297

[7] Justice GP Singh, Principles of Statutory Interpretation, Lexis Nexis, 14th Edition, 2016, p. 21

[8] State of Punjab v. Qaisar Jehan Begum, AIR 1963SC 1604, p. 1606

[9] Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, Vol. 1, p.59

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Author: Mayank Shekhar

Mayank is a student at Faculty of Law, Delhi University. Under his leadership, Legal Bites has been researching and developing resources through blogging, educational resources, competitions, and seminars.

  • Kaushal Jaisalmeria says:

    Great notes, really helpful for clearing concepts and revision too. Not unnecessarily long like college modules. Precise and to the point. Thanks.