Rules of Construction | Explained

By | March 28, 2017
Interpretation of Statutes

The object of all such ‘Rules of Construction’ 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 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 the 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.

1. The Literal Rule of Interpretation

The primary and important rule of interpretation is called the Literal Rule, laid down in the Sussex Peerage Case[1]. 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”.

2. Purposive Rule of Interpretation

In Halsbury’s Laws of England, Volume 44(1), fourth reissue, para 1474, pp 906-07, it is stated:

“Parliament intends that an ‘enactment shall remedy particular mischief and it is therefore presumed that Parliament intends that the court when considering, in relation to the facts of the instant case, which of the opposing constructions of the enactment corresponds to its legal meaning, should find a construction which applies the remedy provided by it in such a way as to suppress that mischief.”

The doctrine originates in Heydon’s case where the Barons of the Exchequer resolved 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; what remedy Parliament has resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth; and
  3. the true reason of the remedy, end then the office of all the judges is always to make such construction as shall –
  • suppress the mischief and advance the remedy; and
  • suppress subtle inventions and evasions for the continuance of the mischief pro private commode (for private benefit); and
  • add force and life to the cure and remedy according to the true intent of the makers of the Act pro publico (for the public good).

3. Harmonious Construction

The principle of harmonious interpretation is similar to the idea of a broad or purposive approach. The key to this method of constitutional interpretation is that provisions of the Constitution should be harmoniously interpreted. As per Kelly:

Constitutional provisions should not be construed in isolation from all other parts of the Constitution but should be construed to harmonize with those other parts. A provision of the constitution must be construed and considered as part of the Constitution and it should be given a meaning and an application which does not lead to conflict with other Articles and which confirms with the Constitution’s general scheme.

When there are two provisions in a statute, which are in apparent conflict with each other, they should be interpreted such that effect can be given to both and that construction which renders either of them inoperative and useless should not be adopted except in the last resort.

This principle is illustrated in the case of Raj Krushna Bose v. Binod Kanungo And Others Raj Krushna Bose vs Binod Kanungo And Others (1954 AIR 202). In this case, two provisions of the Representation of People Act, 1951, which were in apparent conflict were brought forth. Section 33 (2) says that a Government Servant can nominate or second a person in the election but section 123(8) says that a Government Servant cannot assist any candidate in the election except by casting his vote.

The Supreme Court observed that both these provisions should be harmoniously interpreted and held that a Government Servant was entitled to nominate or second a candidate seeking election in State Legislative assembly. This harmony can only be achieved if Section 123(8) is interpreted as giving the govt. servant the right to vote as well as to nominate or second a candidate and forbidding him to assist the candidate it any other manner.

4. Rule of Beneficial Construction

Beneficent construction involves giving the widest meaning possible to the statutes. When there are two or more possible ways of interpreting a section or a word, the meaning which gives relief and protects the benefits which are purported to be given by the legislation should be chosen. A beneficial statute has to be construed in its correct perspective so as to fructify the legislative intent.

Although beneficial legislation does receive liberal interpretation, the courts try to remain within the scheme and not extend the benefit to those not covered by the scheme. It is also true that once the provision envisages the conferment of benefit limited in point of time and subject to the fulfilment of certain conditions, their non-compliance will have the effect of nullifying the benefit. There should be due stress and emphasis to Directive Principles of State Policy and any international convention on the subject.

There is no set principle of construction that beneficial legislation should always be retrospectively operated although such legislation is either expressly or by necessary intendment not made retrospective. Further, the rule of interpretation can only be resorted to without doing any violence to the language of the statute. In case of any exception when the implementation of the beneficent act is restricted the Court would construe it narrowly so as not to unduly expand the area or scope of the exception.

The liberal construction can only flow from the language of the act and there cannot be placing of unnatural interpretation on the words contained in the enactment. Also, beneficial construction does not permit the rising of any presumption that protection of widest amplitude must be deemed to have been conferred on those for whose benefit the legislation may have been enacted.

Beneficial Construction of statutes have enormously played an important role in the development and beneficial interpretation of socio-economic legislation and have always encouraged the Indian legislators to make more laws in favour of the backward class of people in India.

5. Strict Construction of Penal Statutes

The general rule for the construction of a penal statute is that it would be strictly interpreted, that is, if two possible and reasonable constructions can be put upon a penal provision, the Court must lean towards that construction which exempts the subject from penalty rather than the one which imposes a penalty.

A penal statute has to be construed narrowly in favour of the person proceeded against. This rule implies a preference for the liberty of the subject, in case of ambiguity in the language of the provision. The courts invariably follow the principle of strict construction in penal statutes. In constructing a penal Act, if a reasonable interpretation in a particular case can avoid the penalty the Court adopts that construction.

Contributed by – Shradha Arora, CNLU Patna

[1] Sussex Peerage Case [1844] 11 Clark and Finnelly 85, 8 ER 1034 at 1844

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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.

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