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Introduction to Interpretation of Statutes

The term interpretation means “To give meaning to”. Statutory interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying legislation to decide cases. Interpretation is necessary when case involves suble or ambiguous aspects of a statute. Governmental power has been divided into three wings namely the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Interpretation of statues to render justice is the primary function of the judiciary. It is the duty of the Court to interpret the Act and give meaning to each word of the Statute.

To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various tools and methods of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory interpretation, legislative history, and purpose. The most common rule of interpretation is that every part of the statute must be understood in a harmonious manner by reading and construing every part of it together. The maxim “A Verbis legis non est recedendum” means that you must not vary the words of the statute while interpreting it. The object of interpretation of statutes is to determine the intention of the legislature conveyed expressly or impliedly in the language used.

In Santi swarup Sarkar v pradeep kumar sarkar, the Supreme Court held that if two interpretations are possible of the same statute, the one which validates the statute must be preferred.

The reason for ambiguity or vagueness of a legislation is the fundamental nature of language. It is not always possible to precisely transform the intention of the legislature into written words. Interpreting a statute to determine whether it applies to a given set of facts often boils down to analyzing whether a single word or short phrase covers some element of the factual situation before the judge. The expansiveness of language necessarily means that there will often be equally good or equally unconvincing arguments for two competing interpretations. A judge is then forced to resort to documentation of legislative intent, which may also be unhelpful, and then finally to his or her own judgment of what outcome is ultimately fair and logical under the totality of the circumstances. In common law jurisdictions, the judiciary may apply rules of statutory interpretation to legislation enacted by the legislature or to delegated legislation such as administrative agency regulations.

Kinds of Interpretation

There are generally two kind of interpretation;

  1. literal interpretation and
  2. logical interpretation.

Literal interpretation

Giving words their ordinary and natural meaning is known as literal interpretation or litera legis. It is the duty of the court not to modify the language of the Act and if such meaning is clear and unambiguous, effect should be given to the provisions of a statute whatever may be the consequence. The idea behind such a principle is that the legislature, being the supreme law making body must know what it intends in the words of the statute. Literal interpretation has been called the safest rule because the legislature’s intention can be deduced only from the language through which it has expressed itself.

The bare words of the Act must be construed to get the meaning of the statute and one need not probe into the intention of the legislature. The elementary rule of construction is that the language must be construed in its grammatical and literal sense and hence it is termed as litera legis or litera script.

The Golden Rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning. This interpretation is supreme and is called the golden rule of interpretation.

In Ramanjaya Singh v Baijnath Singh, the Election tribunal set aside the election of the appellant under s 123(7) of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951 on the grounds that the appellant had employed more persons than prescribed for electioneering purpose. The appellant contended that the excess employees were paid by his father and hence were not employed by him. The Supreme Court followed the grammatical interpretation of S 123(7) and termed the excess employees as volunteers.

In Maqbool Hussain v State of Bombay, the appellant, a citizen of India, on arrival at an airport did not declare that he brought gold with him. Gold, found in his possession during search in violation of government notification, was confiscated under S 167 (8) Sea Customs Act, 1878. He was charged under s 8 of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1947. The appellant pleaded that his trial under the Act was violative of Art 20(2) of the constitution relating to double jeopardy as he was already punished for his act by was of confiscation of the gold. It was held by the Supreme Court that the sea customs authority is not a court or a judicial tribunal and the confiscation is not a penalty. Consequently his trial was valid under the Act of 1947.

In Madan mohan v K.Chandrashekara, it was held that when a statute contains strict and stringent provisions, it must be literally and strictly construed to promote the object of the act.

In Bhavnagar University v Palitana Sugar Mills Pvt Ltd, it was held that according to the fundamental principles of construction the statute should be read as a whole, then chapter by chapter, section by section and then word by word.

In Municipal board v State transport authority, Rajasthan, an application against the change of location of a bus stand could be made within 30 days of receipt of order of regional transport authority according to s 64 A of the Motor vehicles Act, 1939. The application was moved after 30 days on the contention that 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.

In Raghunandan Saran v M/s Peary Lal workshop Pvt Ltd, the supreme court validated 14 ( 2) of the Delhi Rent Control Act 1958 and provided the benefit of eviction on account of non payment of rent. The Supreme Court adopted grammatical interpretation.

Exceptions to the rule of literal interpretation

Generally a statute must be interpreted in its grammatical sense but under the following circumstances it is not possible:-

  • Logical defects
  • ambiguity
  • inconsistency
  • incompleteness or lacunae
  • unreasonableness

Logical interpretation

If the words of a statute give rise to two or more construction, then the construction which validates the object of the Act must be given effect while interpreting. It is better to validate a thing than to invalidate it or it is better the Act prevails than perish. The purpose of construction is to ascertain the intention of the parliament.

The mischief rule

The mischief rule of interpretation originated in Heydon’s case. If there are two interpretations possible for the material words of a statute, then for sure and true interpretation there are certain considerations in the form of questions.

The following questions must be considered.

  1. What was the common law before making the Act?
  2. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide a remedy?
  3. What is the remedy resolved by the parliament to cure the disease of the common wealth?
  4. The true reason of the remedy. The judge should always try to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.

The mischief rule says that the intent of the legislature behind the enactment should be followed.

Rule of casus omissus

Generally, the court is bound to harmonize the various provisions of an Act passed by the legislature during interpretation so that repugnancy is avoided. Sometimes certain matters might have been omitted in a statute. In such cases, they cannot be added by construction as it amounts to making of laws or amending which is a function of legislature. A new provision cannot be added in a statute giving it meaning not otherwise found therein. A word omitted from the language of the statute, but within the general scope of the statute, and omitted due to inadvertence is known as Casus Omissus.

In Padma Sundara Rao v State of Tamil Nadu it was held that the cassus omissus cannot be supplied by the court except in the case of a clear necessity and when reason for it is found within the four corners of the statute itself.

Rule of ejusdem generis

Ejusdem generis means “of the same kind”. Generally particular words are given their natural meaning provided the context does not require otherwise. If general words follow particular words pertaining to a class, category or genus then it is construed that general words are limited to mean the person or thing of the same general class, category or genus as those particularly exposed.

Eg: if the husband asks the wife to buy bread, milk and cake and if the wife buys jam along with them, it is not invalidated merely because of not specifying it but is valid because it is of the same kind.

The basic rule is that if the legislature intended general words to be used in unrestricted sense, then it need not have used particular words at all.

The ejusdem generis, or 'of the same genus‘ rule, is similar though narrower than the more general rule of noscitur a sociis. It operates where a broad or open-ended term appears following a series of more restrictive terms in the text of a statute. Where the terms listed are similar enough to constitute a class or genus, the courts will presume, in interpreting the general words that follow, that they are intended to apply only to things of the same genus as the particular items listed.

According to this rule, when particular words pertaining to a class or a genus are followed by general words, the general words are construed as limited to the things of the same kind as those specified by the class or the genus. The meaning of an expression with wider meaning is limited to the meaning of the preceeding specific expressions. However, for this rule to apply, the preceeding words must for a specific class or genus. Further, this rule cannot be applied in the words with a wider meaning appear before the words with specific or narrow meaning.

In UP State Electricity Board vs Harishankar1) held that the following conditions must exist for the application of this rule

  1. The statue contains an enumeration of specific words
  2. The subject of the enumeration constitute a class or a category
  3. The class or category is not exhausted by the enumeration
  4. A general term is present at the end of the enumeration
  5. There is no indication of a different legislative intent

In Devendra Surti v State of Gujarat, under section 2(4) of the Bombay shops and Establishments Act, 1948 the term commercial establishment means “an establishments which carries any trade, business or profession”. Here the word profession is associated to business or trade and hence a private doctor’s clinic cannot be included in the above definitions as under the rule of Ejusdem Generis.

In Grasim Industries Ltd v Collector of Customs, Bombay, the rule of Ejusdem Generis is applicable when particular words pertaining to a class, category or genus are followed by general words. In such a case the general words are construed as limited to things of the same kind as those specified. Every clause of a statute must be construed with reference to other clauses of the Act.

AIR 1979, SC