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Principles of Interpretation of Statutes


A statute is a written law passed by a legislative body. The interpretation of a statute is an explanation, or an opinion, of what a written law means. As we are aware that the Constitution is the paramount law of a country, therefore, the law-making process shall strictly be in accordance with the Constitution. In a democratic country, the power is distributed among three fundamental authorities. The Parliament (i.e. the legislative authority) is the law-maker, the Government (i.e. the executive authority) executes the law, and the Courts (i.e. the judicial authority) adjudicates and interprets the law.

In interpreting the law, the courts follow certain principles. These principles have been evolved through the ages and now work as the guiding principles for the interpretation of the statutes. These can broadly be categorised into two types, viz. the Primary Principles, and the Secondary Principles. Within each of these principle categories, there are four rules.

Under the category of the Primary Principles, the four rules are –

  • 1. Literal Rule (also known as Grammar Rule, or ‘Plain meaning’ Rule)
  • 2. Mischief Rule (also known as “Heydon’s case” Rule, or ‘Purposive construction’ Rule)
  • 3. Golden Rule
  • 4. Harmonious Construction Rule

Under the category of the Secondary Principles, the four rules are –

  • 1. Ejusdem generis (of the same kind)
  • 2. Noscitur a sociis (known by the company something keeps)
  • 3. Expressio unius est exclusio alterius (if something is not included in the list, it means it was deliberately excluded)
  • 4. Reddendo singula singulis (by referring each to each)

In this article, we will try to understand these rules.

The rules categorized under the Primary Principles

1. Literal Rule (Grammar Rule, or ‘Plain meaning’ Rule) 1
As the name suggests, when the provisions are interpreted according to the literal or grammatical or plain meaning, giving the provisions their ordinary and natural meaning, then this rule of interpretation is applied.
This rule is applied when the meaning of the words is clear and unambiguous and leads to only one possible interpretation. The Supreme Court states –
“If the words of statute are clear, there is no question of interpretation. Grammatical construction has been accepted as the golden rule and so construed.” 1
Literal Rule is what the law states, instead of what the law means. This rule prevents courts from taking sides in legislation. This rule results in quick decision, it ensures parliamentary supremacy in law-making.

2. Mischief Rule (“Heydon’s case” Rule, or ‘Purposive construction’ Rule) 2
This rule aims at determining the intent of the legislature. The court tries to determine the intent of the legislature in trying to remedy the mischief or defect, and tries to interpret the law in such a way that the remedy is implemented. In Heydon’s case the following four questions were considered to implement this rule.

  • 1. What was the law before the making of the present law in question?
  • 2. What was the mischief or defect that the earlier law did not address?
  • 3. What remedy does the present law want to achieve to address the mischief or defect?
  • 4. What is the reason of the remedy?

This rule is applied when the literal rule cannot be applied.

3. Golden Rule
This rule is an extension of Literal Rule, but it allows the court to depart from a natural meaning of a word if it leads to an absurd conclusion. Therefore, Golden Rule is a confluence of Literal Rule and Mischief Rule. Golden Rule is applied in two ways, viz. narrow sense, and wider sense.
To address absurdity in the words, Golden Rule is applied in a narrow sense. Supposing a signboard says ‘Do not use lifts in case of a fire’. Its literal meaning is to not use lifts in case there is fire inside the lift, but this is an absurdity since no one can use lift when it has fire inside. The actual intent in this case is that if there is fire in surrounding areas of the lift, then do not use the lift.
To avoid an interpretation that is against the principles of public policy then Golden Rule is applied in wider sense.
The advantage of Golden Rule is that the errors in the drafting of the law is corrected without any significant loss of time, and that the interpretations are in line with parliament’s intentions. The argument against this rule is that it infringes the separation of power.

4. Rule of Harmonious Construction 3
This rule tries to harmonise the conflict between two (or more) statutes, or between two (or more) parts of a statute. When two provisions cannot be reconciled with one another, they should be interpreted in such a way that, if possible, the effect should be given to both. There are five important aspects of this rule.

  • 1. The court must avoid head-on clash of contradicting provisions and try to harmonise them.
  • 2. The provision of one section cannot be used to defeat the provision of another unless all out efforts are taken to harmonise them.
  • 3. When reconciliation is impossible, the courts must interpret them in such a way that effect is given to all the provisions involved, as much as possible.
  • 4. The courts must keep in mind that an interpretation which reduces one provision to a useless or dead provision is not a harmonious construction.
  • 5. It is not aimed at destroying statutory provisions, or to render it loose.

The rules categorized under the Secondary Principles

1. Ejusdem generis 4  (of the same kind))

It is sometimes not possible to enumerate an exhaustive list of a class or category of specific words to which a particular law applies. Typically, in such cases, some specific words are followed by some general words. To interpret such statutes, this rule of Ejusdem generis is applied. The intention is to determine whether the general word belongs to the same kind as the specified words. The Supreme Court had laid down the following points to apply this rule.

  • 1. The statute contains an enumeration (a number of things, one by one) of specific words.
  • 2. The subjects of enumeration constitute a class or category.
  • 3. That class or category is not exhausted by the enumeration.
  • 4. The general terms follow the enumeration.
  • 5. There is no indication of a different legislative intent.

For example, if a law refers to ‘automobiles, trucks, tractors, motorcycles, and other vehicles’, then the scope of ‘other vehicles’ would not include aeroplanes as this list specifies commodities of surface transportation only. If a law refers to ‘automobiles and other vehicles’, then this rule is not applicable as there is no list of specified words. If a law refers to ‘automobiles, trucks, tractors, motorcycles’, even then this rule is not applicable as the list is exhaustive.

2. Noscitur a sociis 5  (known by its associates))

Through this rule the meaning of an unclear or ambiguous word of a statute is determined by considering the context in which the word is used. It is considered as an extension of Ejusdem generis. The words in the statutes should be judged by the company it keeps. This rule helps the court to deal with unforeseen circumstances. This rule is broader than Ejusdem generis as the unclear word is interpreted based on the whole phrase, and not just by the adjacent words. This rule can be used when the associated words are comparable in certain respects with other parts of the statutes.
For example, if the law states that ‘explosive taken into a mine must be in a case or canister’, and the defendant uses a cloth bag to take explosive into a mine, by applying this rule the court held that a ‘cloth bag’ does not have the same strength as a ‘canister’ and hence is not associated with the same.

3. Expressio unius est exclusio alterius 6  (if the list does not include, it means it was deliberately excluded))

This rule means when one or more things (of a class) is explicitly mentioned in the statutes, others of the same class are excluded. Items or things not on the list are assumed by implication as not intended to be covered by the statute. When a provision of a statute is inclusive, usually indicated by words such as ‘includes’, ‘and so on’, etc., this rule is not applicable.
“The exclusio is often the result of inadvertence or accident, and the maxim ought not to be applied, when its application, having regard to subject matter to which it is to be applied, leads to inconsistency or injustice.”

4. Reddendo singula singulis7  (by referring each to each)
This rule helps in interpretation of words in a statute in a distributive manner where a complex sentence has more than one subject. In the sentence ‘If anyone shall draw or load any sword or gun’, the word ‘draw’ applies to the word ‘sword’ and the word ‘load’ applies to the word ‘gun’. The former verb to the former noun and the latter verb to the latter noun, because it is impossible to load a sword or draw a gun.
Proviso to Article 304 of the Constitution reads –
“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.”
While applying this rule the Supreme Court held that the word ‘introduced’ referred to the ‘Bill’ and the word ‘moved’ to ‘amendment’.

1. [Raghunandan Saran Ashok Saran & ... vs Pearey Lal Workshop (P) Dated on 15/04/1986 // 1986 AIR 1682 (SC)]
2. Heydon's Case (1584) 76 ER 637 (Also available in Wikipedia)
3. Harmonious Construction [CIT vs Hindusthan Bulk Carriers] Appeal (Civil) 7966-67 of 1996 (SC) dated 17/12/2000
4. _Ejusdem generis_ [ Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board vs Hari Shankar Jain dated 28/08/1978 // 1980 AIR 65 (SC)]
5. _Noscitur a sociis_ [ Foster vs Diphwys casson (1887) 18 QBD 428] (Also available in Wikitionary)
6. _Expressio unius est exclusio alterius_ "The exclusio is often ... or injustice." [ Colquhoun vs Brooks (1888) 21 QBD 52 (CA) 65)]
7. _Reddendo singula singulis_ SC decision on Proviso to Article 304 in Koteswar Vittal Karath vs K Rangapa Baliga & Co dated 09/12/1968 // 1969 AIR 504 (SC)

LEENA LAL on August 27 2018 13:07:38

Dada ...a truly valuable article..thanks

DHARANI NATH on August 27 2018 13:52:29

Dada has brought out the intricate details in such a lucid manner that interest of the reader to go further into the subject increases. Thank you Dada

veeru on August 28 2018 14:08:51

Very well written , keeping it simple yet highly informative. Thank You Sir...

avinash kumar on October 13 2018 08:26:17

Great, Dada u have special quality to see and explain about statutes. I am sure None of us knowing it with such details. Thanks.

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