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Interpretations of statutes -CS Executive

The term interpretation means “To give meaning to”. 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. 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 legisnon est recedendum” means that you must not vary the words of the statute while interpreting it. The objectof 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. Kinds of Interpretation There are generally two kind of interpretation; literal interpretation and logical interpretation 1.Literal interpretation Giving words their ordinary and  natural meaning  is known as literal interpretation orlitera 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. 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 thegrammatical   interpretation   of  S   123(7)   and  termed   the   excess employees as volunteers In Maqbool Hussain V state of Mumbai, the appellant, a citizen of India,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 way 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 Vs k chandrashekhara, 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 Palitan 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

  1. A) ambiguity

  2. B) inconsistency

  3. C) incompleteness or lacunae

  4. D) unreasonablenessLogical 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.

  5. The mischief rule The mischief rule  of interpretation originated in Heydon’scase.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.

  6. What was the common law before making the Act?

  7. What was the mischief and defect for which the common law did not provide a remedy?

  8. Whatis the   remedy  resolved   by   the  parliament   to   cure  the disease of the common wealth?

  9. 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.

  10. Rule of Harmonious construction Doctrine of Harmonious Construction is one of the cannons of interpretation used for Interpretation of Statues. The Doctrine states that, a provision of the statue should not be interpreted or construed in isolation but as a whole, so as to remove any inconsistency or repugnancy. e.g. In reference to Representation of People Act, 1951Section 33 (2) says that a Government Servant can nominate or second a person in election. Section 123(8) says that a Government Servant cannot assist any candidate in election except by casting his vote. If both the provisions are read in isolation, it gives rise to a conflicting situation as nomination by government servant will result into indirect assistance, which is nowhere related to casting of vote but as nomination is specified by the legislation, it is leading to an inconsistent situation. But with the help of the Doctrine, when both the provisions are read together, it removes inconsistency, as the govt. servant has the right to vote as well as to nominate or second a candidate, while forbidding him to assist the candidate in any other manner. Thus, in layman’s terms, a Statue should be read as a whole as in one unit, to find out its true meaning. Commissioner Of Income Tax vs M/S Hindustan Bulk Carriers on 17 December, 2000 Sri Venkataramana Devaruand ... vs The State Of Mysore And ... on 8 November, 1957 The Calcutta Gas Company ... vs The State Of West Bengal And Others on 5 February, 1962U nni Krishnan, J.P. And Ors. Etc. ... vs State Of Andhra Pradesh And Ors. ... on 4 February, 1993

  11. 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. E.g.:  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. This rule is not of universal application. In Devendra Surti v State of Gujarat, under s2 (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. INTERNAL AIDS OF INTERPRETATION Statute generally means the law or the Act of the legislature authority. The general rule of the interpretation is that statutes must prima facie be   given   this  ordinary   meaning.   If  the   words   are  clear,   free   from ambiguity there is no need to refer to other means of interpretation. But if the words are vague and ambiguous then internal aid may be sought for interpretation.


  1. Context If the words of a statute are ambiguous then the context must be taken into consideration. The context includes other provisions of the statute, its preamble, the existing state of law and other legal provisions. The intention behind the meaning of the words and the circumstances    under which they are framed must be considered.

  2. Title Title is not part of enactment. So it cannot be legally used to restrict the plain meaning of the words in an enactment. Long title The heading of the statute is the long title and the general purpose is described in it. E.g. Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954, the long title reads as follows “An Act to make provisions for the prevention of adulteration of food”. In Re Kerala Education bill, the Supreme Court held that the policy and purpose may be deduced from the long title and the preamble. In Manohar Lal v State of Punjab,  Long title of the Act is relied as a guide to decide the scope of the Act. 2A. Short Title   The short title of the Act is purely for reference only. The short title is merely for convenience. E.g. The Indian Penal Code, 1860. 3.Preamble The  Act   Starts   with  a   preamble   and  is   generally   small.  The   main objective   and purpose   of   the  Act   are found   in  the   Preamble  of  the Statute.   “Preamble   is  the   Act   in  a   nutshell.   It  is   a   preparatory statement. It contains the recitals showing the reason for enactment of the   Act.  If   the   language  of   the   Act  is   clear   the  preamble   must   be ignored. The preamble  is an intrinsic  aid in  the interpretation of   an ambiguous act. In Kashi Prasad V State, the court held that even though the preamble cannot be used to defeat the enacting clauses of a statute, it can be treated as a key for the interpretation of the statute. 4.Headings A  group   of   Sections  are   given   under  a   heading  which   act   as  their preamble. Sometimes a single section might have a preamble. S.378-441 of IPC is “Offences against property”. Headings are prefixed to sections. They are treated as preambles. If there is ambiguity in the words of a statute, headings can be referred. In Durga Tathera V Narain Thatere the court held that the headings are like a preamble which helps as a key to the mind of the legislature but do not control the substantive section of the enactment.

  3. Marginal notes Marginal notes are the notes that are printed at the side of the section in an Act and it summarizes the effect of the section. They are not part of thestatute.  So  they  must not   be considered. But  if there is  any ambiguity   they   may  be   referred   only  as   an   internal  aid   to   the construction. In Wikes V Godwin, the court held that the slide notes are not part of the Act and hence marginal notes cannot be referred.

  4. Proviso A  proviso   merely   carves  out   something   from  the   section   itself.   A proviso is a subsidiary to the main section and has to be construed in the light of the section itself. Ordinarily, a proviso is intended to be part of the section and not an addendum to the main provisions. A proviso should   receive  strict   construction.   The  court   is   not  entitled   to   add words to a proviso with a view to enlarge the scope.

  5. Definition/ Interpretation clause. The legislature can lay down legal definitions of its own language, if such definitions are embodied in the statute itself, it becomes binding on the courts. When the act itself provides a dictionary for the words used, the court must first look into that dictionary for interpretation. In Mayor of Portsmouth V Smith the court observed, “the introduction of interpretation clause is a novelty.”

  6. Conjunctive and Disjunctive words The word “and” is conjunctive and the word “or” is disjunctive. These words are often interchangeable. The word ‘and’ can be read as ‘or’ and ‘or’ can be read as ‘and’.

  7. Gender Words’ using the masculine gender is deemed to include females too.

  8. Punctuation Punctuation is disregarded in the construction of a statute. Generally there   was  no  punctuation   in   the statutes   framed   in England   before 1849. Punctuation   cannot  control,   vary   or  modify   the   plain  and   simple meaning of the language of the statute.

  9. Explanations IN  certain   provisions   of  an   Act   explanations   may  be   needed   when doubts arise as to the meaning of the particular section. Explanations are given at the end of each section and it is part and parcel of the enactment.

  10. Exceptions and savings clause. To exempt certain clauses from the preview of the main provisions, and exception clause is provided. The things which are not exempted fall within the purview of the main enactment. The saving clause is also added in cases of repeal and re-enactment of a statute.

  11. Schedules Schedules form part   of  a  statute.   They   are at the  end   and   contain minute details for working out the provisions of the express enactment. The expression in the schedule cannot override the provisions of the express enactment. Inconsistency   between  schedule   and   the  Act,   the   Act  prevails.   (Ramchand textiles V STO)

  12. Illustrations Illustrations in enactment provided by the legislature are valuable aids in the understanding the real scope.

  13. Meaning of the words The definition of the words given must be construed  in the popular sense. Internal aid to construction is important for interpretation.

EXTERNAL AID TO INTERPRETATION Other than the internal aid to interpretation which are part of a statute itself there are other aids which are not part of the statute. These are known   as   external  aid  to  interpretation.  The  court  can  consider recourse   outside   the   Act   such   as   historical  settings,  objects  and reasons, bills, debates, text books, dictionaries etc. Recourse to external aid is justified only to well-recognized limits. External aids

  1. Historical settings  

  2. The surrounding circumstances and situations which led to the passing of the Act can be considered for the purpose of construing a statute.

  3. Objects and reason The statements and object cannot be used as an aid to construction. The statements of object and reason are not only admissible as an aid to construction of a statute .Objects and reasons of a statute is to be looked into as an extrinsic aid to find out the legislative intent, only when the language is obscure or ambiguous. 4. Text books and dictionaries The use of dictionaries is limited to circumstances where the judges and Counsels use different words. In such cases the court may make use of standard authors and well known authoritative dictionaries. Text books may also be refereed to for assistance in finding out the true construction of a statute. International Conventions.   International conventions are generally not resorted to for the purpose of interpretation,  but it helps   as   an  external aid for  the   purpose   of resolving ambiguities in the language.

  4. Government publications They are:-

  5.  Reports of commissioner or committee

  6. Other documents. Only if the above documents are expressly referred to in the statute, they can be looked at for the purpose of construction. 6.Bill Only when the language is ambiguous, bills can be referred.

  7. Select Committee Report To ascertain the legislative intent of a doubtful meaning of a statute, report of legislative committee of the proposed law can be referred. The  report  of  the  Select  committee  can  be  looked  into  from  an historical angle to find out what was the previous law, before and at the time of enacting the statute.

  8. Debate and proceedings of the legislature. A speech made in the course of a debate on a bill could be referred to find out the intent of the speaker. Speeches made in the parliament can also be referred.

  9. State of things at the time of passing of the bill

  10. History of legislation. The history of legislation usually denotes the course of events which give rise   to  enactments. The  court may  refer  historical facts   if it  is necessary to understand the subject matter. 11.Extemporaneous exposition In interpreting old statutes, the construction by the judges who lived at the   time   of   the   enactment   could   be   referred  as  it  is  best  to understand the intentions of the makers of the statute.

  11. Judicial interpretation of words It   is   an   accepted   principle  of  law that   if   a   word has received   clear judicial interpretation, then  the word is  interpreted  according to the judicial meaning. E.g. Rule in Ryland v Fletcher,absolute liability has become a fixed and standing rule. If definition is not given, popular meaning must be construed. 13.Analogy and legal fiction Analogy means governed by the same general principle. 14.Previous English law It is not legal and correct to apply decisions of English acts to the construction of an Indian statute. Others external aids include interpretation by the executive, foreign decisions  which   include  policy  of  the legislature   and   government policy, purpose of the Act conventions and practices.

  12. spirit and reason of law. The purpose of a statute is the reason of enactment, but the spirit or reason of law is connected with the legislative intent. 16.Acts in Parliament as material  When a statute is ambiguous, the intention of the legislature may be gathered from statutes relating to same subject. The definitions cannot be generally imported. Other external aids include interpretation of later Acts with the help of earlier Acts and words and expressions used in different Act

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