Interpretation of Statutes

INTERPRETATION OF STATUTES

Author: Mallika Kapoor, The Department of Law, Aligarh Muslim University.

Introduction:

The Theory of “Separation of Power” promulgated by Montesquieu has engendered a dichotomy between the various organs of the State, (Legislature, Executive and Judiciary) relating to the exercise of prerogatives vested in each one of them. Herein, one of the most significant functions of the judicial bodies is to decipher and ascertain the true meaning of the words used by the Policymakers in a particular statute in order to thwart any possible ambiguity arising due to the complexity of the modern legislations.

No word in the statute should be evinced as nugatory, meaningless or otiose and full effect must be given to the intention of the legislation manifested through the words fashioned by it.

Thus, it is upon the Judiciary to accomplish the constructive task of finding the intention of the Parliament through the language of the statute while taking into consideration the social conditions which gave rise to it. However, a judge must not alter the material of which it is woven but should iron out the creases, if any.     

What is meant by “Interpretation of Statutes”?

Interpretation of statutes is an age-old process and a well-settled principle of law for construing and ascertaining the definite meaning of the words that are used in a statute or legislation to fathom out the intention of the policymakers while effectuating the same. According to Salmond, Interpretation or construction of statutes entails the ascertainment of the meaning of the legislatures, which is done by the Courts through the medium of the various authoritative forms in which they are asseverated.

What is the need for and importance of statutory interpretation?

The necessity of statutory interpretation arises when the language of the statutory provision is ambiguous or more than one meaning may be derived from the same word or sentence. The complexity of statutes pertaining to the nature of the subject, the blend of legal and technical language and numerous draftsmen can result in such an ambiguous, incoherent and vague language. Additionally, the meaning and application of certain provisions within a statute might alter over time with the technological advancements in society. Moreover, it might be possible that at the time of framing the statues, the legislators were unable to accurately predict the implications of such changes on the applicability of certain words in a statute and therefore the need for statutory interpretation arises. This interpretation must be as near to the mind of the author as possible, and as the law permits.

Denning L.J. had enunciated in Seaford Court Estates Ltd. v. Asher (1949), that it would certainly be more convenient for the judges if the Acts of the Parliament were drafted with divine precision and perfect clarity but in the absence of the same, a judge must supplement the written word in order to give ‘life and force’ to the intention of the draftsmen.

Furthermore, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, in the case of R.S. Nayak v. A.R. Antuly, (1984) had pronounced that the question of interpretation of a statute arises only in case of ambiguity but if the words used are clear and unambiguous, it is the plainest duty of this Court to only give effect to the natural meaning of the words mentioned in the statute and the same was later reiterated by the Apex Court in Grasim Industries Ltd. v Collector of Customs, Bombay (2002).

What are the different rules of statutory interpretation?

The Primary Rule: Literal Construction-:

According to this rule, a statute must be ordinarily comprehended while taking into consideration the natural, popular and ordinary meaning of the words, phrases, and sentences used in it, unless such an interpretation leads to an absurdity or the content of the statute indicates a different meaning.

The basic principles of literal construction are:

  • Every single word that has been used in a statute should be given meaning as no word is used unnecessarily.
  • No omissions must be assumed and no additional word that has not been mentioned in the statute should be given any meaning.

In the case of State of H.P v. Pawan Kumar (2005), it had been held by the Supreme Court that, “One of the fundamental principles of statutory interpretation is to construe the legislation in accordance with the literal, plain or grammatical meaning of the words used in them.”

While in the case of Nand Prakash Vohra v. State of H.P. (2000), it has been pronounced that, “The interpretation of a statute shouldn’t be such as would render other provisions redundant.”   

The Mischief Rule or Heydon’s Rule-:

This rule of statutory interpretation is based on the Heydon’s Case (1584) and seeks to determine the mischief and defect which a particular statute has set out to remedy. This rule gives more discretion to the judges by allowing them to effectively decide on the intent of the draftsmen while directing the courts to “suppress the mischief and advance the remedy”.

In light of the same, Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer had highlighted that adopting the principle of literal construction of the statute alone, in all circumstances without examining the context and scheme of the statute, may not subserve the purpose of the statute. Such an approach would be to see the skin and miss the soul, while the “judicial key to construction is the composite perception of the deha and the dehi of the provision”.

In the case of CIT v. Sodra Devi (1957), the Hon’ble Supreme Court had avowed that, “The Heydon’s Rule of statutory interpretation should be applied only when the words used in a statute are vague, ambiguous or incoherent or are reasonably capable of furnishing more than one meaning”.

The Golden Rule-:

The Golden Rule of statutory interpretation was promulgated by Lord Wensleydale in the case of Grey v. Pearson (1857). This rule is an elaboration of the literal rule and suggests that adherence must be given to the ordinary and usual sense of the words in order to avoid any absurdity, ambiguity or inconsistency. In the words of Maxwell, “The golden rule means that words used in a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning”.

In India, the Golden Rule of Statutory interpretation has been applied by the Courts in several cases like Tirath Singh v. Bachittar Singh (1955). In this case, the Court held that the provisions of impugned Section 99 of Representation of People’s Act, 1951, must be interpreted by applying the golden rule of statutory interpretation.

Similarly, in the case of State of MP v. Azad Bharat Financial Company (1967), it had been held that applying the literal rule of statutory interpretation to decipher the provisions of Section 11 of the Opium Act, 1878 was leading to inequity and injustice and therefore the golden rule must be applied here.

Conclusion:

The process of statutory interpretation by Courts is incorporated in order to ascertain and declare the meaning of what is written in the instrument through the medium of the authoritative forms in which it has been displayed. For the same, the Courts often take recourse to various internal and external aids, namely, preamble, long title, proviso, schedule, headings, illustrations, marginal notes, punctuations, historical background, official statement, etc., 

References:

Salmond, Interpretation of Statutes, 11th ed.

Halsbury’s Laws of England 3rd Edn, Vol. 2, p. 381

Maxwell, Interpretation of Statutes, 11th Ed. p. 1 

P J Fitzgerald, SALMOND ON JURISPRUDENCE, 12th ed., 2008

Seaford Court Estates Ltd. v. Asher, (1949) 2 K.B. 481

R.S. Nayak v. A.R. Antuly, AIR 1984 SC 684 

Grasim Industries Ltd. v. Collector of Customs, Bombay (2002)4 SCC 297

State of H.P v. Pawan Kumar (2005) 4 SCALE, P.1

Nand Prakash Vohra v. State of H.P., AIR 2000 HP 65

Heydon’s Case (1584) 76 ER 637

CIT v. Sodra Devi, AIR 1957 S.C. 832

Grey v. Pearson (1857) 6 HL Cas 61

Tirath Singh v. Bachittar Singh AIR 1955 SC 850

State of MP v. Azad Bharat Financial Company AIR 1967 SC 276

Umed Singh v. Raj Singh, AIR 1975 S.C. 43

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