Rules of Interpretation | Overview
- Rule of Literal Interpretation
- The Mischief Rule
- Golden Rule of Interpretation
- Rule of Harmonious Construction
There are certain general principles of interpretation that have been applied by Courts from time to time. Primary Rules of Interpretation are discussed hereunder.
I. Rule of Literal Interpretation
In construing Statutes the cardinal rule is to construe its provisions literally and grammatically giving the words their ordinary and natural meaning. This rule is also known as the Plain meaning rule. The first and foremost step in the course of interpretation is to examine the language and the literal meaning of the statute. The words in an enactment have their own natural effect and the construction of an act depends on its wording. There should be no additions or substitution of words in the construction of statutes and in its interpretation. The primary rule is to interpret words as they are. It should be taken into note that the rule can be applied only when the meanings of the words are clear i.e. words should be simple so that the language is plain and only one meaning can be derived out of the statute.
In Municipal board v. State transport authority, Rajasthan, the location of a bus stand was changed by the Regional Transport Authority. An application could be moved within 30 days of receipt of the order of regional transport authority according to section 64 A of the Motor vehicles Act, 1939. The application was moved after 30 days on the contention that the statute must be read as “30 days from the knowledge of the order”. The Supreme Court held that literal interpretation must be made and hence rejected the application as invalid.
Lord Atkinson stated, ‘In the construction of statutes their words must be interpreted in their ordinary grammatical sense unless there be something in the context or in the object of the statute in which they occur or in the circumstances in which they are used, to show that they were used in a special sense different from their ordinary grammatical sense.’
To avoid ambiguity, legislatures often include “definitions” sections within a statute, which explicitly define the most important terms used in that statute. But some statutes omit a definitions section entirely, or (more commonly) fail to define a particular term. The plain meaning rule attempts to guide courts faced with litigation that turns on the meaning of a term not defined by the statute, or on that of a word found within a definition itself.
If the words are clear, they must be applied, even though the intention of the legislator may have been different or the result is harsh or undesirable. The literal rule is what the law says instead of what the law means.
A literal construction would not be denied only because the consequences to comply with the same may lead to a penalty. The courts should not be overzealous in searching for ambiguities or obscurities in words that are plain. (Tata Consultancy Services v. State of A.P)
The literal rule may be understood subject to the following conditions –
- Statute may itself provide a special meaning for a term, which is usually to be found in the interpretation section.
- Technical words are given ordinary technical meaning if the statute has not specified any other.
- Words will not be inserted by implication.
- Words undergo shifts in meaning in the course of time.
- It should always be remembered that words acquire significance from their context.
When it is said that words are to be understood first in their natural ordinary and popular sense, it is meant that words must be ascribed that natural, ordinary or popular meaning which they have in relation to the subject matter with reference to which and the context in which they have been used in the Statute. In the statement of the rule, the epithets ‘natural, “ordinary”, “literal”, “grammatical” and “popular” are employed almost interchangeably to convey the same idea.
For determination of the meaning of any word or phrase in a statute, the first question is what is the natural and ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute but when that natural or ordinary meaning indicates such result which cannot be opposed to having been the intention of the legislature, then to look for other meaning of the word or phrase which may then convey the true intention of the legislature.
Another important point regarding the rule of literal construction is that exact meaning is preferred to lose meaning in an Act of Parliament. In the case of Pritpal Singh v. Union of India, it was held that there is a presumption that the words are used in an Act of Parliament correctly and exactly and not loosely and inexactly.
Rationale for this Rule
Proponents of the plain meaning rule claim that it prevents courts from taking sides in legislative or political issues. They also point out that ordinary people and lawyers do not have extensive access to secondary sources. In probate law, the rule is also favoured because the testator is typically not around to indicate what interpretation of a will is appropriate. Therefore, it is argued, extrinsic evidence should not be allowed to vary the words used by the testator or their meaning. It can help to provide consistency in interpretation.
Criticism of this rule
Opponents of the plain meaning rule claim that the rule rests on the erroneous assumption that words have a fixed meaning. In fact, words are imprecise, leading justices to impose their own prejudices to determine the meaning of a statute. However, since little else is offered as an alternative discretion-confining theory, plain meaning survives.
This is the oldest of the rules of construction and is still used today, primarily because judges may not legislate. As there is always the danger that a particular interpretation may be the equivalent of making law, some judges prefer to adhere to the law’s literal wording.
II. The Mischief Rule
The mischief rule is a rule of statutory interpretation that attempts to determine the legislator’s intention. Originating from a 16th-century case (Heydon’s case) in the United Kingdom, its main aim is to determine the “mischief and defect” that the statute in question has set out to remedy, and what ruling would effectively implement this remedy. When the material words are capable of bearing two or more constructions the most firmly established rule or construction of such words “of all statutes, in general, be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law is the rule of Heydon’s case. The rules laid down, in this case, are also known as Purposive Construction or Mischief Rule.
The mischief rule is a certain rule that judges can apply in statutory interpretation in order to discover Parliament’s intention. It essentially asks the question: By creating an Act of Parliament what was the “mischief” that the previous law did not cover?
This was set out in Heydon’s Case where it was stated that there were four points to be taken into consideration when interpreting a statute:
- What was the common law before the making of the act?
- What was the “mischief and defect” for which the common law did not provide?
- What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth?
- What is the true reason for the remedy?
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, and pro privato 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.
The application of this rule gives the judge more discretion than the literal and the golden rule as it allows him to effectively decide on Parliament’s intent. It can be argued that this undermines Parliament’s supremacy and is undemocratic as it takes lawmaking decisions away from the legislature.
Use of this Rule
This rule of construction is of narrower application than the golden rule or the plain meaning rule, in that it can only be used to interpret a statute and, strictly speaking, only when the statute was passed to remedy a defect in the common law. Legislative intent is determined by examining secondary sources, such as committee reports, treatises, law review articles and corresponding statutes. This rule has often been used to resolve ambiguities in cases in which the literal rule cannot be applied.
In the case of Thomson v. Lord Clan Morris, Lord Lindley M.R. stated that in interpreting any statutory enactment regard should not only be paid to the words used, but also to the history of the Act and the reasons which lead to its being passed.
In the case of CIT v. Sundaradevi, it was held by the Apex Court that unless there is an ambiguity, it would not be open to the Court to depart from the normal rule of construction which is that the intention of the legislature should be primarily to gather from the words which are used. It is only when the words used are ambiguous that they would stand to be examined and considered on surrounding circumstances and constitutionally proposed practices.
The Supreme Court in Bengal Immunity Co. v. State of Bihar, applied the mischief rule in the construction of Article 286 of the Constitution of India. After referring to the state of law prevailing in the province prior to the constitution as also to the chaos and confusion that was brought about in inter-state trade and commerce by the indiscriminate exercise of taxing powers by the different Provincial Legislatures founded on the theory of territorial nexus, Chief Justice S.R. Das, stated:
“It was to cure this mischief of multiple taxations and to preserve the free flow of interstate trade or commerce in the Union of India regarded as one economic unit without any provincial barrier that the constitution maker adopted Article 286 in the constitution”.
A principle to be valued must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it existence. These are designed to approach immortality as nearly as human institutions can approach it’. Mischief Rule is applicable where the language is capable of more than one meaning. It is the duty of the Court to make such construction of a statue which shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.
- The Law Commission sees it as a far more satisfactory way of interpreting acts as opposed to the Golden or Literal rules.
- It usually avoids unjust or absurd results in sentencing.
- It is considered to be out of date as it has been in use since the 16th century when common law was the primary source of law and parliamentary supremacy was not established.
- It gives too much power to the unelected judiciary which is argued to be undemocratic.
- In the 16th century, the judiciary would often draft acts on behalf of the king and was therefore well qualified in what mischief the act was meant to remedy.
- It can make the law uncertain.
III. Golden Rule of Interpretation
The Golden rule, or British rule, is a form of statutory interpretation that allows a judge to depart from a word’s normal meaning in order to avoid an absurd result.
It is a compromise between the plain meaning (or literal) rule and the mischief rule. Like the plain meaning rule, it gives the words of a statute their plain, ordinary meaning. However, when this may lead to an irrational result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the judge can depart from this meaning. In the case of homographs, where a word can have more than one meaning, the judge can choose the preferred meaning; if the word only has one meaning, but applying this would lead to a bad decision, the judge can apply a completely different meaning.
This rule may be used in two ways. It is applied most frequently in a narrow sense where there is some ambiguity or absurdity in the words themselves.
For example, imagine there may be a sign saying “Do not use lifts in case of fire.” Under the literal interpretation of this sign, people must never use the lifts, in case there is a fire. However, this would be an absurd result, as the intention of the person who made the sign is obviously to prevent people from using the lifts only if there is currently a fire nearby.
The second use of the golden rule is in a wider sense, to avoid a result that is obnoxious to principles of public policy, even where words have only one meaning. Example: The facts of a case are; a son murdered his mother and committed suicide. The courts were required to rule on who then inherited the estate, the mother’s family, or the son’s descendants. There was never a question of the son profiting from his crime, but as the outcome would have been binding on lower courts in the future, the court found in favour of the mother’s family.
IV. Rule of Harmonious Construction
When there is a conflict between two or more statues or two or more parts of a statute then the rule of harmonious construction needs to be adopted. The rule follows a very simple premise that every statute has a purpose and intent as per law and should be read as a whole. The interpretation consistent of all the provisions of the statute should be adopted. In the case in which it shall be impossible to harmonize both the provisions, the court’s decision regarding the provision shall prevail.
The rule of harmonious construction is the thumb rule to the interpretation of any statute. An interpretation which makes the enactment a consistent whole should be the aim of the Courts and construction which avoids inconsistency or repugnancy between the various sections or parts of the statute should be adopted. The Courts should avoid “a head-on clash”, in the words of the Apex Court, between the different parts of enactment and conflict between the various provisions should be sought to be harmonized.
The normal presumption should be consistency and it should not be assumed that what is given with one hand by the legislature is sought to be taken away by the other. The rule of harmonious construction has been tersely explained by the Supreme Court thus, “When there are, in an enactment two provisions which cannot be reconciled with each other, they should be so interpreted, that if possible, the effect should be given to both”. A construction that makes one portion of the enactment a dead letter should be avoided since harmonization is not equivalent to destruction.
It is a settled rule that an interpretation that results in hardship, injustice, inconvenience or anomaly should be avoided and that which supports the sense of justice should be adopted. The Court leans in favour of an interpretation that conforms to justice and fair play and prevents injustice.
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. 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 in any other manner.
The important aspects of this principle are
- The courts must avoid a head-on clash of seemingly contradicting provisions and they must construe the contradictory provisions so as to harmonize them.
- The provision of one section cannot be used to defeat the provision contained in another unless the court, despite all its effort, is unable to find a way to reconcile their differences.
- When it is impossible to completely reconcile the differences in contradictory provisions, the courts must interpret them in such a way so that effect is given to both the provisions as much as possible.
- Courts must also keep in mind that interpretation that reduces one provision to a useless number or a dead lumbar, is not harmonious construction.
- To harmonize is not to destroy any statutory provision or to render it loose.
 (2005) 1 SCC 308
 AIR 1982 SC 1413, P. 1419
  3 CO REP 7
 (1957) (32 ITR 615) (SC)
 (AIR 1995 SC 661)
 Union of India v. B.S. Aggarwal (AIR 1998 S.C. 1537)
 AIR 1954