RULES OF INTERPRETING A STATUTE

    The term ‘interpretation’ is derived from the Latin term ‘Interpretari’, meaning to expound, understand, explain, describe, or to translate. Therefore, interpretation is the method of elucidating or translating any word used in a statute in such a manner that its true meaning could be identified or discovered. Interpretation of statutes is the understanding of the language of a statute in the most appropriate form.

    The object behind the adaptation of this process by the Courts is for determining the true and exact intention of the law-making body of the government i.e. the Legislature behind enacting any particular statute or law. 

    The Court acts as the place of justice for all the people of a nation. Therefore, the Courts are under a legal duty to render justice to its people without any biases towards the parties appearing before it. Interpreting a statute in its true form is one of the most important essentials to avoid dispute and render justice to the appropriate party. 

    RULES OF INTERPRETATION

    There are some rules which the Court takes into consideration while interpreting any law. The Court can take help of either of them which shall be most appropriately applicable in that particular situation. [1]

    These rules can be broadly classified into two groups:-

    PRIMARY RULES, and SECONDARY RULES

    The Primary and Secondary rules could be further subdivided into the following:-

    PRIMARY RULES

    • Literal Rule
    • Mischief Rule
    • Golden Rule
    • Harmonious Construction

    SECONDARY RULES

    • Nosticur a Sociis
    • Ejusdem Generis
    • Reddendo Singula Singulis

    These are the rules which the Court adopts when the language of the law seems inappropriate or ambiguous in nature. 

    PRIMARY RULES

    Primary rules aim at interpreting the words of a statute in the way they are. Following are the different types of primary rules that the Court needs to adopt:

    LITERAL RULE OR PLAIN MEANING RULE 

    Literal rule is the primary and important rule of interpretation which has been laid down in the Sussex Peerage Case[2]. This rule states that:

    In construing any statute, the very first rule which needs to be taken into consideration is the intent of the Parliament while enacting such statute and construe such provisions literally and grammatically so that the literal and ordinary meaning of the words are taken. 

    The Literal Rule of interpretation is also known as the Plain meaning or the grammatical rule. This is because the first glance is given to the ordinary or plain meaning of the words mentioned in the particular provision, for the words in a statute are enacted with an intent to specify their own natural meaning which plays an essential role for the construction of an act.

    Under this rule the words are taken as they’re due to this addition or substitutions of words are avoided. But it has to be noted that the rule can only be applied when the meaning of the words mentioned in a statute are crystal clear and unambiguous and the language is simple enough to understand easily.

    JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS 

    Maqbool Hussain v. State of Bombay. [3]

    In this case, the appellant, a citizen of India, was caught with gold at the airport on his arrival to India. Carrying gold was against the notification of the government and he was seized under section 167(8) of Sea Customs Act.  He was also charged under Section 8 of the Foreign Exchange Regulations Act, 1947. Feeling aggrieved the appellant challenged the trial to be violative subjecting Article 20(2) of the Indian Constitution. The following article states that no person shall be prosecuted or punished more than once for the same offence, which is held to be double jeopardy. 

    After examining the facts and evidence, the Court held that the airport authority and the Seas Act is neither a Court nor a Judicial tribunal. Thus, accordingly he was not prosecuted earlier thus, holding the trial to be valid.

    MISCHIEF RULE

    Mischief rule is the second primary rule of interpretation of statutes. This rule is also known as ‘the rule in the Heycon’s case’ (1594) because this rule was laid down by Lord Coke for the first time in Re Heydon’s Case. Further this rule has also been named as purposive construction. 

    This rule states that the Court in order to interpret laws in a justified manner, must adopt that way of construction, which shall aim to suppress the mischief and promote the solution or remedy. 

    This rule is usually applied when the meaning of the words in a statute is not clear or is ambiguous. Furthermore, the purpose behind the application of the mischief rule is to find out the clear or true intention of the legislature for enacting that particular act or statute by removing ambiguity and bringing clarity in the words of that statute. 

    The rule is commonly known as the ‘mischief rule’ because it aims at constructing the application of the words of an act in such a manner that the mischief is suppressed and the remedy is advanced. 

    JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS 

    Heydon’s Case[4]

    In the Heydon’s Case, it was specifically clarified or mentioned that there are four things which the Court needs to follow in order to determine the correct and true interpretation of all the statutes in general. The four recommendations are mentioned below:-

    1. What was the common law before the enactment of the Act? 
    2. What was the mischief or defect in the act for which the present act has been made?
    3. What remedy did Parliament come up with to resolve the mischief?
    4. The reasons or grounds for the remedy.

    Therefore, the main objective which needs to be achieved with the help of these four guidelines mentioned above is to suppress the defect and cure it accordingly.

    GOLDEN RULE

    This rule has been named the ‘golden rule’ because it aims at solving all the problems of interpreting a statute. The rule basically says that initially the interpretation should start by applying the literal rule or by taking the ordinary meaning of the words in a statute, but if the interpretation given through the literal rule leads to some or any kind of injustice,  ambiguity or inconvenience then in such circumstances the literal meaning shall be rejected and the interpretation should be done in the most appropriate manner so that the objective behind the enactment of such act is fulfilled accordingly. Due to this reason, it is held to be the modified version of literal rule. This rule further suggests that the outcome or effects has to be given a lot more significance because they act as the clues for determining the true meaning of the words as intended by the Legislature while  enacting the statute. At times while applying the golden rule it is often seen that the interpretation is entirely opposite to that of the literal rule but it is considered to be justified for having been using  the golden rule. The presumption here is that the only object of the legislature is the proper making, application and interpretation of the laws, therefore, it doesn’t accept any interpretation which results in unintended objects. All these criteria of the application of this rule has made it also to be named as Rule of Reasonable Construction.

    JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS 

    Bedford v. Bedford (1935)[5]

    In this case, a son murdered his mother and thereafter committed suicide. The question of law before the court was to determine  who was the legal person to inherit the estate, the mother’s family or the son’s descendants. Furthermore it was discovered by the court that the mother did not make any will before her death and under the Administration of Justice Act, 1925, it was stated that her estate could be inherited by her next of kin, i.e. her son. The words of the following Act were clear and unambiguous, but the Court after taking into consideration the facts of the case was not prepared to give inheritance to the son who committed a crime and gain benefit from the same.

    The Court held that the literal rule will not be applied here and the golden rule should be used to prevent the son’s descendant from inheriting the estate. The Court further added that if the son inherits the estate then it would amount to receiving benefit from a crime which would ultimately be abhorrent to the Act. 

    HARMONIOUS CONSTRUCTION

    The doctrine of harmonious construction is adopted in order to solve disputes between two or more statutes or two or more parts of a statute. According to this rule, a statute should be read as a whole and in such a manner that one provision of the Act should be assembled following the other provisions of the same Act to make a consonant sanction of the whole statute. Also, to remove any disparity or repugnancy while interpreting it. 

    Harmonious construction should be used to bring harmony among the statutory rules, and the court’s presumption while using the said doctrine is to avoid conflicts and unintended objects.

    THE FIVE PRINCIPLES 

    In the landmark case of CIT v. Hindustan Bulk Carriers[6], the Supreme Court laid down five rules of conducting the doctrine of harmonious construction:-

    • The courts must avoid any clash of seemingly contradicting provisions, and they should try to harmonize such contradictory or contrasting provisions.
    • The provision of one section cannot be used to suppress another provision unless the court, despite all its efforts, cannot find a way to harmonize or reconcile their differences. 
    • When it becomes impossible to propitiate the differences in contrasting provisions, the courts must interpret them in such a way so that both the provisions are focused and applied as much as possible.
    • While interpreting any provision, courts must consider that such interpretation that renders one provision futile or pointless, such construction does not come under the concept of harmonious construction.
    • Further, it should also be taken into consideration by the Courts that harmonizing does not mean to destroy any statutory provision or to depict it fruitless.

    REQUIREMENTS 

    The following are the requirements 

    • The first requirement to use the rule of harmonious construction is to remove ambiguity between two or more provisions. 
    • The second requirement is to interpret the law so that it renders justice to the victim.
    • The third requirement is the most appropriate way of interpreting without making any other provision useless or dead.
    • To remove any clashes between two or more statutes or part of statutes avoiding all sorts of inconvenience.
    • The next requirement is to bring harmony between the various lists referred to in the Indian Constitution i.e., Union list, State list, and Concurrent list.
    • Society is subjected to alteration from time to time due to which new developments are introduced; therefore, considering this, the law needs to be interpreted to predict its applicability in the present and future.

    https://legalreadings.com/khalistan-movement-rises-again/

    SECONDARY RULES

    NOSTICUR A SOCIIS

    Nosticur literally means ‘to know’ and Sociis means ‘association’. Thus, Nosticur a Sociis means knowing from its association. When the meaning of a word is not clear then it can be adjudged by referring to the rest of the statute. The doctrine of “nosticur a sociis” is used when the meaning of a word is doubtful and help is taken from the associated words. Therefore, the questionable meaning of a word can be obtained from the surrounding words or the words related to each other. 

    JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS 

    Alamgir v. State of Bihar [7]

    • In this case the interpretation of the word ‘detained’ present under section 498 of the Indian Penal Code was involved.
    • In this case, a married woman voluntarily left her husband and started residing with the appellant. 
    • The appellant was further prosecuted under section 498 IPC. 
    • This section provides: “Whoever takes or entices away any woman who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of any other man, from that man, or from any person having the care of her on behalf of that man, with intent that she may have illicit intercourse with any person, or conceals or detains with that intent any such woman, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
    • The Court held that the word ‘detain’ would literally mean detention against one’s will but under this section it has to be determined from the other words surrounded by it. This means that detention must be interpreted with other words such as taken, entices, and conceals and also the line” without consent of her husband” has to be focused on. Further the Court also suggested that S.498 also aims at protecting the right of the husband who has been deprived of company of his wife. Therefore, the term detention would mean “keeping of a woman without the consent of the husband” and the woman’s consent is therefore not taken into consideration. 

    EJUSDEM GENERIS

    Ejusdem generis is a latin term which means “of the same kind”. The general rule while interpreting any statute is to take the ordinary or natural meaning. But when a law lists specific classes of persons or things, and refers to the similar words by using a general term, then the general term used depicts the words of the similar or same kind. 

    Example– Article 12 of the Indian Constitution defines ‘State’ and The main component of article 12 which are included in term State are:

    Government & Parliament of India

    Government & Legislature of States

    Local Authorities

    Other Authorities

    Here, the term ‘other authorities’ is a general term which will include all the words which shall be similar to the bodies that  are specifically listed under Article 12. 

    JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS 

    Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board v. Harishankar [8]

    In this case the Supreme Court laid down some essential elements of the Ejusdem generis rule:- 

    • The Statute contains a list of specific words.
    • The subject of such a list characterizes a class or category of similar words.
    • The class is not exhaustive or complete.
    • The list is followed by a general term to show its continuance.
    • No different legislative intent is entertained.

    REDDENDO SINGULA SINGULIS

    This is a Latin term which means “by referring each to each” and concerns the use of words distributively. 

    In a complex sentence, when there is more than one subject and more than one object, the following rule is used for the right construction of the statute by reading the provision distributively and applying each object to its appropriate subject accordingly. This rule is mostly used by the Court in distributing properly in the most convenient manner. 

    JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS 

    Koteshwar Vittal Kamat v. K Rangappa Baliga[9]

    The following case was regarding the construction of the Proviso of Article 304 of the Indian Constitution which reads as, “Provided that no bill or amendment for the purpose of clause (b) shall be introduced or moved in the Legislature of a state without the previous sanction of the President”. 

    The Court held that the word “introduced” applies to “bill” and “moved” applies to “amendment”. 

    CONCLUSION

    Interpretation of statutes plays an important role while justifying the proper implementation of laws in a case. The rules that have been discussed above have been adopted by the Courts in order to remove any kind of ambiguity in the laws prevailing so that people are met with justice. The words in a statute are always not in a clear state of view for example when the terms such as ‘other authorities’, ‘various other purposes’, etc., are used, therefore, the Courts interpret them in such a manner that without losing its originality they are in a crystal clear stage, thus focusing into the intention behind the making of that particular law of the Legislature. Therefore, the presumption here is that the only object of the legislature is the proper making, applying and interpreting the laws. Hence, it doesn’t accept any interpretation which results in unintended objects.

    REFERENCES

    [1]  Prof. T Bhattacharya., The Interpretation of Statues (Central Law Agency, Allahabad, 10th edn., 2017).

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

    [3] AIR 1953 SC 325.

    [4] (1584) 76 ER 637.

    [5] 2013 SCC 72, [2013] 3 SCR 1101.

    [6] (2003)3 SCC 57.

    [7] AIR 1959 SC 436.

    [8] AIR 1979 SC 65 .

    [9] AIR 1969 SC 504.


    BY ANANYA SAHA  | INDIAN INSTITUTE OF LEGAL STUDIES

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    ADVERTISE WITH LEGAL READINGS :)
    WEEKLY NEWSLETTEREnter your email address below to subscribe to LEGALREADINGS newsletter.