The interpretation of laws is the primary function of the courts of law. In course of time, courts have evolved a large and elaborate body of rules to guide them in construing or interpreting laws. The object of all such rules or principles is to ascertain the true intent, meaning and spirit of every statute. These are known as Rules of Statutory Interpretation.
PRIMARY RULES OF INTERPRETATION
The Literal Rule
The words of enactment are to be given their natural and ordinary meaning, if such meaning is clear and unambiguous. It is also known as grammatical interpretation.
The Mischief Rule
The court should opt for such construction as shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy. This rule is applicable only when the words in question are ambiguous and are reasonably capable of more than one meaning. Important consideration:
(1) What was the law before the making of the Act?
(2) What was the mischief and defect for which the previous law did not provide?
(3) What remedy the Parliament have resolved and appointed to cure the disease?
(4) The true reason of the remedy
The Golden Rule
It says a court could construe a statute by departing from the literal meaning of the words if the literal meaning leads to absurdity, inconvenience or injustice. The court must modify the meaning only to such extent as would prevent negative consequences.
Where two provisions in a statute conflict with each other, courts will try their best to read the two harmoniously, and will reject either of them as useless only in the last resort. If two constructions are possible, one leading to sense and the other to absurdity, the courts will adopt the former.
The statute should be read as a whole
All parts of a statute are to be taken together while construing a provision. A provision cannot be interpreted in isolation. Scheme of the act as a whole should be the guiding factor.
Construction Ejusdem generis
As a rule, when a general word follows particular and specific words of a distinct category, the general word must be confined to things of the same kind as those specified. The specific words so used must constitute a category, class or genus.
In construing a provision of a statute the Court should refrain from using any construction which tends to make any part of the statute meaningless or ineffective. An attempt must always be made to reconcile the relevant provision as to advance the remedy intended by the statute.
- The statute should be read in the light of conditions prevailing today and that social and technological developments will be taken into account.
- The Legislature had the intention to do the best for the public.
- The acts operate prospectively. Retrospective operation can’t be given to any statute unless such a construction appears very clearly in the terms of the Act, or arises by necessary implication.
- Constitutionality of an act: It is presumed that the Legislature or other legislative authority would not make an infructuous or unconstitutional provision.
INTERNAL AIDS TO CONSTRUCTION
The courts have used long titles and other elements of the statutory context to ascertain the purpose and legislative intent behind a provision.
HEADINGS AND MARGINAL NOTES
The marginal notes steer the reader to the appropriate section, and it briefly indicates the contents of that section. However, these cannot be trusted in every case, as many times these are inserted by the drafters and not the legislators.
The preamble contains in a nutshell the ideas and aspirations of the legislation. Assistance may be obtained from the preamble to a statute in ascertaining the content from their context.
DEFINITION SECTIONS OR INTERPRETATION CLAUSES
The meaning given to a word in the interpretation clause will be given to that word wherever it is used in that statute. But where the context makes the definition given in the definition clause inapplicable, a defined word when used in the body of statute may have to be given a meaning different from that contained in the interpretation clause.
Explanations are inserted with the purpose of explaining the meaning of a particular provision and to remove doubts. It does not expand the meaning of the provision and is used only to remove confusion and fill gaps.
Illustrations to the sections are part of the section and help to elucidate the principle of the section. Illustrations cannot have the effect of modifying the language of the section.
Punctuation is a minor element in the construction of a statute and it cannot be allowed to control the plain meaning of a text. But in case of ambiguity, court shall read the whole provision to find out the meaning it carries.
A proviso cannot be construed as enlarging the scope of an enactment when it can be fairly construed without attributing to it that effect.
These generally deal with as to how claims or rights under the act are to be asserted or as to how powers are to be exercised.
EXTERNAL AIDS TO CONSTRUCTION
HISTORY OF THE LAW
The history of the law as shown by previous enactments is used as a guide to a consolidating or amending Act but only if the latter is not sufficiently clear. Parliamentary debates, reports of committees etc are also important part of history of an enactment.
TEXT BOOKS AND DICTIONARIES
These may be referred to by the courts to arrive at the true meaning of an enactment. For example, books of Manu, Mulla has been referred to many times by the court.
CONSTRUCTION OF PENAL/FISCAL ACTS
Acts which impose penalties/taxes are subject to strict construction. The courts will not read into a penal/taxing section any words which extend the operation of the section. The benefit of doubt is given to the person sought to be penalized/ taxed.