Introduction To Basic Rules of Interpretation of Statutes

Meaning of Interpretation

The essence of law lies in the spirit, not its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it.”


Interpretation means the art of finding out the true sense of enactment by giving the words of the enactment their natural and ordinary meaning. The term Interpretation has been derived from the Latin term “interpretari” which means to explain or understand. It is the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in a statute. The necessity of interpretation would arise only where the language of a statutory provision is ambiguous, not clear or where two views are possible or where the provision gives a different meaning defeating the object of the statute. If the language is clear and unambiguous, no need for interpretation would arise. The Court is not expected to interpret arbitrarily and therefore there have been certain principles that have evolved out of the continuous exercise by the Courts. These principles are sometimes called ‘rules of interpretation’.

Some of the better-known Basic rules of interpretation also referred to as the Primary Rules of Interpretation are discussed hereunder.

  1. Literal or Grammatical Rule of Interpretation:

It is the first rule of interpretation. The literal rule means that a judge has to consider what the statute says ‘literally’, i.e. its simple plain meaning without any ambiguity. It is said that the words themselves best declare the intention of the law-givers. 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 their 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.

Thus, the literal meaning is what the law says instead of what the law means.

State of Kerala v. Mathai Verghese and others, 1987 AIR 33 SCR(1) 317, in this case, a person was caught along with the counterfeit currency “dollars” and he was charged under section 120B, 498A, 498C and 420 read with section 511 and 34 of Indian Penal Code for possessing counterfeit currency. The accused contended before the court that a charge under sections 498A and 498B of the Indian Penal Code can only be levied in the case of counterfeiting of Indian currency notes and not in the case of counterfeiting of foreign currency notes. The court held that the word currency notes or banknote cannot be prefixed. The person was held liable to be charge-sheeted.

In the case of Motipur Zamindari Company Private Limited v. State of Bihar AIR 1962 SC 660, the issue before the Court was whether sugarcane can fall under the term “green vegetables”, reason being, if it would`ve fallen within the term “green vegetables” the same would then be exempted from the Bihar Sales Tax Act, 1947. The Court had taken the Literal rule of interpretation and observed that the word “vegetable” was to be understood as common parlance that is denoting a class of vegetables that were grown in a kitchen garden or on a farm and were used for the table. The dictionary defines sugar cane as grass; hence it was not exempted under the Act. A similar issue was also raised in the case of State of West Bengal & others v. Washi Ahmed, AIR 1977 SC 1638, the question before the court was whether Ginger comes under the ambit of green vegetable. The Sales tax authorities levied sales tax on “green ginger” which were sold by the respondents, taking the view that green ginger is used to add flavour and taste to food. It was hence, concluded that green ginger is included within the meaning of the term “vegetable” or “tarkari”( vegetable in Bengali).

2. Golden Rule of Interpretation:

The golden rule of interpretation is a modification of the literal rule of interpretation. Where the literal rule lays emphasis on the literal meaning of the words used in legal language, the golden rule interprets the words in such a way that the absurdities and anomalies of literal interpretation are avoided. The golden rule modifies the language as well as the grammar of the words used in statutes and other documents of interpretation, thus providing the actual meaning of the words. It brings forth the context in which the words have been used in a particular stance. It must be kept in mind that the golden rule of interpretation can only be used when there is no correct grammatical construction possible. The legal language is sometimes composed of such words that do not provide a noticeable meaning, and to determine the latent meaning the golden rule is used. The judges of the courts must be aware of the consequences of interpreting the statutes using the golden rule, and it must only be used where it is absolutely necessary. The modern approach to using the rules of interpretation is to have a purposeful construction, i.e., to bring into light the object of the legislation.

In New India Sugar Mills Ltd. v. Commissioner of Income Tax, Bihar 1963 SCR Supl. (2) 459, the Supreme Court held that the enactments within a statute must ordinarily be understood in a way that furthers the object of the statute as well as that of the legislature, and if two constructions of the same enactment exist, the court will adopt the one that advances remedy and suppresses any mischief. If the literal rule of interpretation were to be considered every time, it would result in irregularity and uncertainty because a word can have different meanings when put in different contexts. Also, what other words are used with that word define or reduce its meaning variably. This would result in ambiguity or multiple meanings of a single word. It can also result in absurdity, which means that the accurate meaning of the word as mentioned in the statute is completely opposite of what is being deduced from literal constructions. In such cases, the statute becomes questionable. Thus, these situations call for the application of the golden rule of interpretation.

In Belarpur Industries v/s Union of India (A.I.R. 1997, Delhi) – Delhi Court Stated that the language used in the statute should firstly have literal or grammatical interpretation to materialize the intention of the Legislature. But, if difficulties are arising in doing so. The circumstances prevailing at the time of making the statute should be considered to remove those difficulties. This is the Golden Rule of Interpretation.

In fact, the main purpose of the Golden rule of Interpretation is also the same as that Statutes should be interpreted in such a way that the intention of the legislature is known and ambiguity, unclarity, inconsistency, hardship, injustice, etc., arising from language is removed.

In Directorate of Enforcement v/s Deepak Mahajan (A.I.R. 1995 S.C. 1775) – Supreme Court said that the Golden Rule of Interpretation is such that the intention of the legislature should not become meaningless. If the court has to deviate from literal or grammatical interpretation to know the intention of legislature and implementation of the objects of statute. It could be done so.

3. The Mischief Rule:

Mischief Rule was originated in Heydon’s case in 1584. It is the rule of purposive construction because the purpose of this statute is most important while applying this rule. It is known as Heydon’s rule because it was given by Lord Poke in Heydon’s case in 1584. It is called as mischief rule because the focus is on curing the mischief.

In Heydon’s case, it was held that four things have to be followed for true and sure interpretation of all the statutes in general, which are as follows-

  1. What was the common law before the making of an act?
  2. What was the mischief for which the present statute was enacted?
  3. What remedy did the Parliament sought or had resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth.
  4. The true reason of the remedy.

Therefore, the purpose of this rule is to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.

‘Smith v/s Huge’ is a good example in this context. It is based on the ‘Street Offence Act’. It provides for the prohibition of inducement by prostitutes over roads to the passing public. This act was interpreted in such a way as to misuse it by not including the inducement by prostitutes from the windows and balconies of their houses. But Court said while rejecting this agreement that the inducement by prostitutes from the windows and balconies of their houses is also prohibited under this act because the purpose of this act is to prevent prostitution, that is, protect the on goes from the effect of a prostitute’.

Two important formulas related to mischief rule are—

  1. Pro-private commando: and
  2. Pro-bona public

Both these formula means that the Courts should construe the statute in such a manner as to suppress the mischief and encourage the remedy. Simultaneously, further mischief could be prevented from finding out the intention of the legislature. It should be encouraged in such a way that the intention of the legislature is achieved.

Two examples in this respect are — ‘The Alamgir v/s State of Bihar’ (A.IR 1959 S C 436) is the first example. Appellant changed under sec 498 of Indian Penal Code, 1860. A married woman was living with the appellant of her own will. The Appellant argued that he does not fall within the limits of sec 498. But Supreme Court said while rejecting this argument, that sec 498 contains words ‘taking’ or ‘enticing’ or ‘concealment’ or ‘detained. The Appellants case falls within the last word ‘detained’ because the intention of the legislature is to avoid the mischief of preventing the husband from having intercourse with his wife.

Another similar case is Ranjet Odesiey V/S State of Maharashtra (A.I.R. 1965 S.C. 881). The accused was charged under section 292 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which is a punishable offence for selling or having possession for sale of the obscene book. Accused argued that the shopkeeper is not expected to go through each book to see whether books contain obscene literature. He had not read the book ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover earlier. Therefore, his case does not come under section 292. But the Supreme Court rejected the arguments of the accused based on the Mischief Rule.


Every nation has its own judicial system, the purpose of which is to grant justice to all. The court aims to interpret the law in such a manner that every citizen is ensured justice to all. To ensure justice to all the concept of canons of interpretation was expounded. These are the rules which are evolved for determining the real intention of the legislature.

It is not necessary that the words used in a statute are always clear, explicit and unambiguous and thus, in such cases, courts need to determine a clear and explicit meaning of the words or phrases used by the legislature and at the same time remove all the doubts if any. Hence, all the above-mentioned rules are the basic rules of Interpretation and are important for providing justice.

Based on the above description of the rules of interpretation, it can rightly be concluded that the above basic rules of interpretation are like the tools of a carpenter or sculptor. To a great extent, their value depends on the fact that with what care or skill they are used. Actually, it depends upon the wisdom and care which the judges take in interpreting the statutes by applying the above rules of interpretation.

Aishwarya Says:

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