Interpretation of Statutes

Interpretation of Statutes

Interpretation of Statutes


Knowing the meaning of words which never change depends on the key of one’s art to understand without changing the meaning of what is written and according to which the author designed to convey to others is known as art of interpretation.

          In lay man language interpretation means to interpret the meaning of the text written as per the writer’s intended to explain.

“The aim of interpretation is not agreement but understanding.”  – Donald Davidson

In legal sense, many jurists tried define the concept of interpretation. According to Salmond, the process which the Court seeks to ascertain the meaning in which it was intended to be used in legislature is known as interpretation.


The meaning of the text which is unclear or ambiguous, the process to determine the meaning and to reach to conclusion is known as construction.

What is difference between construction and interpretation?

The words construction and interpretation are often used interchangeably as they almost mean the same. Even though the words are used interchangeable they differ from each other in the following manner:

  • Understanding the provisions of the statute in its true sense is interpretation of statutes. Whereas in construction the relation to case, the conclusions are drawn that lie beyond the expression of text.
  • Understanding the literal meaning of the legal text is known as interpretation of statutes. Whereas when words and statutes legal effect are determined is known as construction.
  • In interpretation the words simple meaning is drawn. Whereas in construction if the literal meaning if used in legal text which creates ambiguity then this method is used to decide the case using the meaning of the legal text according to the need of the case.

General principles of Interpretation of Statutes (rules of statutory interpretation)

 Rule of Harmonious Construction:

Sometimes it may happen that two equally important provisions from two different statutes may conflict with each other. The conflict will defeat the legislative object so harmony need to be maintained between the statutes by giving equal importance to both the provisions of the two statutes creating conflict. This general principle of interpretation is called as Rule of Harmonious Construction. This type of technique is used by the courts while interpreting statute to avoid confusion.

The Supreme Court in State of Punjab V. Ajaib Singh (AIR 1953 SC 10) observed that, if two distinct constructions are possible the court must adopt smooth and harmonious working of the constitution to ensure that it does not eschew the other, and to prevent from leading to absurdity or giving rise to practical inconvenience.

Ejusdem Generis (of the same kind):

Similar class of words having common characteristics is what is meant by the rule Ejusdem Generis. The application of this rule should be done with great care. As per this rule the similar class of words are all of one genus and the general word shall be restricted to that genus only. For example: bread, butter, jam, etc. all these belong to one genus meaning edibles and the etc. is the general word which is restricted to edibles only like the words cake, biscuits.

In re Latham Deceased, [(1961) 3 WLR 1154], the word in sec 8 (4) of the Finance Act, 1894, ‘or other person’ in the expression ‘trustee, guardian, committee or other person’ was interpreted by using the principle ejusdem generis to mean a person in a similar position to a trustee etc. and who cannot be included within it as the person was beneficially interested.

Expression unius est exclusio alterius (express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of another):

This rule means that if the statute contains words whose meanings are not clear then reasonable construction must be used to restrain and limit the meaning of the words. As per this maxim anything not included in the meaning is excluded for the protection of the statute.

Article 15, 16 and 19 of the Indian Constitution are Fundamental rights available only to citizens of India and not to any other person or non-citizen. In Bennett Coleman V. Union of India, the Supreme Court has interpreted the word citizen and concluded that the freedom under Article 19 is only available to citizens of India and not non-citizen nor legal person (firms, companies, etc.).

Noscitur a Sociis (Associated words):

The word Noscitur means “to know” and sociis means “association”. Therefore, the meaning of Noscitur a Sociis is “to know from association”. In simple words we can say when want to know the about the character of a person one should look at company he keeps. While interpretating a statute if the court has any doubt regarding the meaning of the words then the associated words can be taken into consideration to derive the meaning of the doubtful word.

3 main rules of interpretation of statutory laws

Interpretation of Statutes

The rule of interpretation of statutes are studied under 3 main headings as follows:

Grammatical or Literal rule of Interpretation:

The first principle or the basic principle of rule interpretation of statutes is known as grammatical (literal) interpretation. As the name goes while applying this rule the court should interpret the words as per their ordinary and natural meaning and give effect if they are clear and unambiguous, to the provisions of the statute containing these words.

          According to this rule of interpretation of statutes the court cannot modify, or alter, or qualify its language and should present or explain the law as it is. The intention of the grammatical (literal) rule is that the legislature is accepted and understood first in their ordinary and natural sense, unless it leads to uncertainty, or absurdity.

          Supreme Court in Kesavanada Bharti V. State of Kerala (AIR 1973 SC 1461)viewed that what is the natural and ordinary meaning is the first question to be asked while determining the context of meaning of any word or phrase in a statute is in which it was intend to be used in the statute.

Golden rule of Interpretation:

The Golden Rule of interpretation is the modification of the grammatical rule of interpretation. The other name for Golden Rule of interpretation is British rule. According to this golden rule of interpretation when the grammatical rule leads to absurdity and not clear meaning is available then the golden rule of interpretation comes to picture. It means the judge is at liberty when one word contains more than one meaning, to choose the meaning of the word as per his choice to find out the intention of the legislature from the word used in the statute.

In Tarlochan Dev Sharama V. State of Punjab (AIR 2001 SC 2524) the court interpreted the phrase “abuse of his power” in sec 22 of Punjab Municipal Act, 1911 thus: ‘Abuse of power’ in the context implies a willful abuse or an intentional wrong. It does not amount to an abuse of power if it is honest though erroneous exercise of power or an indecision.

Limitations on Golden Rule of InterpretationThe Golden rule of interpretation tries to avoid the unreasonableness in the meaning is avoided. Sometimes, it comes with a confusion and goes well beyond the intention of the Legislature. The Golden Rule of Interpretation must be used with caution, if not, then it may leads to in different sense which the Legislature not has intention to the words in the Statute and it defeat the purpose of the Act.

In India, The Golden Rule of Interpretation is applied very rarely and that too mixed up with some other rule. Moreover, the Golden Rule of Interpretation should be used only to the extent of removing the unreasonableness.

Mischief rule of Interpretation (Heydon’s case)

This rule of interpretation was first laid down by Lord Coke in Re Heydon’s Case (1584) 76 ER 637: (1584) 3 CO Rep. 7a).  Therefore, also known as rule in Heydon’s case or purposive construction. As the name suggest the purpose of this rule of interpretation of statutes is to suppress the mischief hidden in the words of the statute that create ambiguity and uncertainty and the judges are to use their discretionary powers to vanish the loopholes in law.

Article by – Adv. Prathi Shetty

Key Difference
Book on Interpretation Of Statues by Prof. Dr. Rega Surya Rao.

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