Interpretation of Statues


Interpretation or construction is the process by which the Courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of the authoritative forms in which it is expressed. (Salmond)


A statute has been defined as

  • the written will of the legislature expressed according to the form necessary to constitute it as a law of the state or
  • act enacted by the legislature or

a law established by the act of the legislative power

Statutes are commonly divided into following classes:

  1. Codifying
    • Statutes which codify the unwritten law on a subject; (like The Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and The Hindu Succession Act, 1956)
  2. Declaratory
    • Statutes which merely declare or explain existing laws (such law do not profess to make any alteration in the existing law; removing doubts, clarifying and improving the law based on the interpretation given by the court like the definition of house property has been amended under the Income Tax (Amendment) Act, 1985 through the judgement of the supreme court);
  3. Remedial
    • Statutes which alter the common law, or the judge made law (to promote the general welfare for bringing social reforms through the system like The Maternity Benefits Act, 1961, The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923);
  4. Amending
    • Statutes which alter the existing statute law (like Companies (Amendment) Act, 2015/2017/2019);
  5. Consolidating
    • Statutes which consolidate several previous statutes relating to the same subject matter, with or without alternations of substance (like Indian Contract Act or Code of Criminal Procedure);
  6. Enabling
    • Statutes which remove restrictions or disabilities (like Land Acquisition Act enables the government to acquire the public property for the purpose of the public, which is otherwise not permissible);
  7. Disabling or restraining
    • Statutes which restrain the alienation of property;
  8. Penal
    • Statutes which impose a penalty or forfeiture (like Indian Penal Code, 1860);


When a defect appears in any statute or law, a judge cannot simply fold his hands and blame the draftsman. He should find the intention of Parliament. While doing so he should consider

  • the language of the statute,
  • the social conditions which gave rise to that statute, and
  • the mischief which it was passed to remedy

He must interpret the statute to give ‘force and life’ to the intention of the legislature. He must not alter the material of which it is woven, but he can and should iron out the creases.

The object of all interpretation is to discover the intention of the author. The construction must be as clear to the minds and apparent intention of the parties as possible, and as the law will permit.

The function of the court is not to ascertain what was intended by the parties, but what the parties meant by the words which they have used to declare the meaning of what is written in the instrument.

It is not possible to presume the intention of the parties and substitute such presumption for the expressed intention. The ordinary rules of construction must be applied, although by doing so the real intention of the parties may, in some instances, be defeated.

The object of interpretation, thus, in all cases is to see “what is the intention of the draftsman/parties expressed by the words used?”



1. The Primary Rule:  Literal Construction
According to this rule, the words, phrases and sentences of a statute are ordinarily to be understood in their natural, ordinary or popular and grammatical meaning unless

    • such a construction leads to an absurdity or
    • the content or object of the statute suggests a different meaning

Some of the other basic principles of literal construction are:

  1. Every word in the law should be given meaning as no word is unnecessarily used.
  2. One should not presume any omissions and if a word is not there in the Statute, it shall not be given any meaning.

While discussing rules of literal construction the Supreme Court in State of H.P v. Pawan Kumar held:

  • One of the basic principles of interpretation of statutes is to construe them according to plain, literal and grammatical meaning of the words.
  • If such construction is contrary to, or inconsistent with, any express intention of the Statute, the grammatical sense must then be modified or extended so far as to avoid such an inconvenience.
  • The onus of showing that the words do not mean what they say lies heavily on the party who alleges it.

Points to be noted:

  • The safer and more correct course of dealing with a question of construction is to take the words themselves and arrive at their meaning without reference to cases.
  • Construction of a statute or document shall be done according to the ordinary meaning of the words as applied to the subject matter with regard to which they are use. Construction of a statute should be done in a manner which would give effect to all its provisions.
  • Nothing should be added to or taken from a statute unless there are adequate grounds to justify that the legislature intended something which it omitted to express.
  • A construction which would leave without effect any part of the language of a statute will normally be rejected. Thus, the main part of the section must not be construed in such a way as to render a proviso to the section redundant.

2. The Mischief Rule or Heydon‘s Rule
In Heydon’s Case, in 1584, it was resolved that for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes in general, 4 things are to be considered:

  1. What was the Common Law before the making of the Act;
  2. What was the mischief and defect for which the Common Law did not provide;
  3. What remedy the parliament had resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the Commonwealth and
  4. The true reason of the remedy

Thus, the Courts must adopt that construction which “shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy”. But this does not mean that a construction should be adopted which ignores the plain natural meaning of the words or disregard the context and the collection in which they occur.

When this rule shall be applicable?
In a case Sodra Devi’s, the Supreme Court has expressed the view that the rule in Heydon’s case is applicable only when the words in question are ambiguous and are reasonably capable of more than one meaning.

When this rule shall not be applicable?
If the correct principle is that after the words have been construed in their context and it is found that the language is capable of bearing only one construction, the rule in Heydon’s case ceases to be operative.

3. Rule of Reasonable Construction i.e. Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pareat (means  it is better for a thing to have effect than to be made void)
Exclusive reliance on the bare dictionary meaning of words may not necessarily assist a proper construction of the statutory provision in which the words occur. Often it becomes necessary to have regard to the subject matter of the statute and the object which it is intended to achieve.

According to this rule, the words of a statute must be construed “Ut res magis valeat quam pareat”, so as to give a sensible meaning to them. A provision of law cannot be so interpreted as to divorce it entirely from common sense; every word or expression used in an Act should receive a natural and fair meaning.

It is the duty of a Court in constructing a statute to give effect to the intention of the legislature. If, therefore, giving of literal meaning to a word used by the draftsman particularly in penal statute would defeat the object of the legislature, which is to suppress a mischief, the Court can depart from the dictionary meaning which will advance the remedy and suppress the mischief.

Courts can depart from dictionary meaning of a word and give it a meaning which will advance the remedy and suppress the mischief provided the Court does not have to conjecture or surmise. If the Court considers that the litera legis (grammatical meaning of legislature) is not clear, it, must interpret according to the purpose, policy or spirit of the statute (ratio-legis).

4. Rule of Harmonious Construction
A statute must be read as a whole and one provision of the Act should be construed with reference to other provisions in the same Act so as to make a consistent enactment of the whole statute. Such a construction has the merit of avoiding any inconsistency either within a section or between a section and other parts of the statute.

It is the duty of the Courts to avoid “a head on clash” between two sections of the same Act and, “whenever it is possible to do so, to construct provisions which appear to conflict so that they harmonize”.

Where in an enactment, there are two provisions which cannot be reconciled with each other, they should be so interpreted that, if possible, effect may be given to both. This is what is known as the “rule of harmonious construction”.

5. Rule of Ejusdem Generis
Ejusdem Generis, literally means of the same kind or species. The rule can be stated thus:

  • In an enumeration of different subjects in an Act, general words following specific words may be construed with reference to the antecedent matters, and the construction may be narrowed down by treating them as applying to things of the same kind as those previously mentioned, unless of course, there is something to show that a wide sense was intended;
  • If the particular words exhaust the whole genus, then the general words are construed as embracing a larger genus.

To apply the rule the following conditions must exist:

  • The statute contains an enumeration by specific words,
  • The members of the enumeration constitute a class,
  • The class is not exhausted by the enumeration,
  • A general term follows the enumeration,
  • There is a distinct genus which comprises more than one species, and
  • There is no clearly manifested intent that the general term be given a broader meaning that the doctrine requires. (See Thakur Singh v. Revenue Minister, AIR 1965 J & K 102)

The rule of Ejusdem generis must be applied with great caution because, it implies a departure from the natural meaning of words, in order to give them a meaning or supposed intention of the legislature.

Other Rules of Interpretation

Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius
The rule means that express mention of one thing implies the exclusion of another. At the same time, general words in a statute must receive a general construction, unless there is in the statute some ground for limiting and restraining their meaning by reasonable construction; because it is not to be assumed that anything not specifically included is for that reason alone excluded from the protection of the statute.

According to this maxim the failure to make the ‘expressio’ complete may arise from accident. Similarly, the ‘exclusio’ is often the result of inadvertence or accident because it never struck the draftsman that the thing supposed to be excluded requires specific mention.

The maxim ought not to be applied

  • when its application leads to inconsistency or injustice.
  • when the language of the Statute is plain with clear meaning

Contemporanea Expositio Est Optima Et Fortissima in Lege
The maxim means that the best way to give the meaning to a document or proposition of a law is to read it as it would have read when it was made. Where the words used in a statute have undergone alteration in meaning in course of time, the words will be construed to bear the same meaning as they had when the statute was passed.

In simple words, old statutes should be interpreted as they would have been at the date when they were passed.

But if the statute appears to be capable of only interpretation, the fact that a wrong meaning had been attached to it for many years, will be immaterial and the correct meaning will be given by the Courts except when title to property may be affected or when every day transactions have been entered into on such wrong interpretation.

Noscitur a Sociis
The ‘Noscitur a Sociis’ mens ‘known by its associates”. In other words, meaning of a word should be known from its accompanying or associating words. It is not a sound principle in interpretation of statutes, to lay emphasis on one word in isolation from its preceding and succeeding words.
The same words bear the same meaning in the same statute. It is a matter of common sense that a particular word should be attributed with same meaning throughout a Statute. But this rule will not apply:

  1. when the context excluded that principle.
  2. if sufficient reason can be assigned, it is proper to construe a word in one part of an Act in a different sense from that which it bears in another part of the Act.
  3. where it would cause injustice or absurdity.
  4. where different circumstances are being dealt with.
  5. where the words are used in a different context.

Strict and Liberal Construction
Strict construction means that Acts are not to be regarded as including anything which is not within their letter as well as their spirit i.e. which is not clearly and intelligibly described in the very words of the statute, as well as manifestly intended. Generally criminal laws are given strict interpretation and unless the accused is found guilty strictly as per the provisions of the law, he cannot be punished.

Liberal construction‟ is meant that “everything is to be done in advancement of the remedy that can be done consistently with any construction of the statute”. Labour and welfare laws, on the other hand are given liberal interpretation as they are beneficial pieces of legislation.

Beneficial construction to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy is generally preferred.


Where the meaning of the statute is clear, there is no need for presumptions. But if the intention of the legislature is not clear, there are number of presumptions. These are:

  1. the words in a statute are used precisely and not loosely.
  2. vested rights, i.e., rights which a person possessed at the time the statute was passed, are not taken away without express words, or necessary implication or without compensation.
  3. “mens rea”, i.e., guilty mind is required for a criminal act. There is a very strong presumption that a statute creating a criminal offence does not intend to attach liability without a guilty intent.
  4. the state is not affected by a statute unless it is expressly mentioned as being so affected.
  5. a statute is not intended to be consistent with the principles of International Law.
  6. the legislature knows the state of the law.
  7. the legislature does not make any alteration in the existing law unless by express enactment.
  8. legislature confers powers necessary to carry out duties imposed by it.
  9. the legislature does not make mistake. The Court will not even alter an obvious one, unless it be to correct faulty language where the intention is clear.
  10. the law compels no man to do that which is futile or fruitless.
  11. the doctrine of natural justice is really a doctrine for the interpretation of statutes, under which the Court will presume that the legislature while granting a drastic power must intend that it should be fairly exercised.


Internal Aids in Interpretation

The following may be taken into account while interpreting a statute:

1. Title
It is now a settled law that the title of a statute is an important part of the Act and may be referred to for the purpose of ascertaining its general scope and of throwing light on its construction, although it cannot override the clear meaning of an enactment. The long title (like The Civil Procedure Code, 1908) of an Act is a part of the Act and is admissible as an aid to its construction.

2. Preamble
If an act is not very clear in it, a preamble may afford useful light as to what a statute intends to reach. But if an enactment is itself clear and unambiguous, no preamble can qualify or cut down the enactment. Thus even though the preamble cannot be used to defeat the enacting clauses of a statute, it has been treated to be a key for the interpretation of the statute.

Thus in case of ambiguity, preamble may be useful to fix the meaning of words used so as to keep the effect of the statute within its real scope.

3. Heading and Title of a Chapter
It is now settled that the headings or titles prefixed to sections or group of sections can be referred to in construing an Act of the legislature. The Court is entitled to look at the headings in an Act of Parliament to resolve any doubt they may have as to ambiguous words. But if the law is clear that those headings cannot be used to give a different effect to clear words in the sections where there cannot be any doubt as to the ordinary meaning of the words.

According to Supreme Court, the headings prefixed to sections or entries cannot control the plain words of the provision; they cannot also be referred to for the purpose of construing the provision when the words used in the provision are clear and unambiguous; nor can they be used for cutting down the plain meaning of the words in the provision. Only in the case of ambiguity or doubt the heading or the sub-heading may be referred to as an aid for construing the provision but even in such a case aid could not be used for cutting down the wide application of the clear words used in the provision.

4. Marginal Notes
It was held many cases that Marginal notes in an Indian statute cannot be referred to for the purpose of construing the Statute. The marginal note cannot certainly control the meaning of the body of the section if the language employed therein is clear and unambiguous.

In case of Constitution of India: Marginal notes appended to the Articles of the Constitution have been held to constitute part of the Constitution as passed by the Constituent Assembly and therefore, they have been made use of in consulting the Articles.

 When reference to marginal note is relevant?
The Supreme Court has held that the marginal note although may not be relevant for rendition of decisions in all types of cases but where the main provision is sought to be interpreted differently, reference to marginal note would be permissible in law.

5. Interpretation Clauses
It is common to find in statutes “definitions” of certain words and expressions used elsewhere in the body of the statute. The object of such a definition is to avoid the necessity of frequent repetitions in describing all the subject-matter to which the word or expression so defined is intended to apply.

The definition of a word in the definition section may either inclusive or it may be exhaustive.

The definition section may itself be ambiguous and may have to be interpreted in the light of the other provisions of the Act. A definition is not to be read in isolation. It must be read in the context of the phrase which it defines, realizing that the function of a definition is to give certainty to a word or a phrase which would otherwise be vague and uncertain.

6. Proviso
In the words of Lord Macmillan: “The proper function of a proviso is to except and to deal with a case which would otherwise fall within the general language of the main enactment, and its effect is confined to the case”.

As a general rule, a proviso is added to an enactment to qualify or create an exception to what is in the enactment. Thus ordinarily, a proviso is not interpreted as stating a general rule.

Proviso is used to remove special cases from the general enactment and provide for them specially.

7. Illustrations or Explanation
Illustrations attached to sections are part of the statute and they are useful so far as they help to furnish same indication of the presumable intention of the legislature.

An explanation is at times appended to a section to explain the meaning of words contained in the section. It becomes a part and parcel of the enactment. An explanation, normally, should be so read as to harmonise with and clear up any ambiguity in the main section and should not be so construed as to widen the ambit of the section.

8. Schedules
The schedules form a part of the statute and must be read together with it for all purposes of construction. But expression in the schedule cannot control or prevail against the express enactment.

If there is any appearance of inconsistency between the schedule and the enactment, the enactment shall prevail.

There are two principles or rules of interpretation which ought to be applied to the combination of an Act and its schedule.

  • If the Act says that the schedule is to be used for a certain purpose and the heading of the part of the schedule in question shows that it is prima facie at any rate devoted to that purpose, then the Act and the schedule must be read as if the schedule were operating for that purpose only.
  • If the language of a clause in the schedule can be satisfied without extending it beyond for a certain purpose, in spite of that, if the language of the schedule has in its words and terms that go clearly outside the purpose, the effect must be given by them and they must not be treated as limited by the heading of the part of the schedule or by the purpose mentioned in the Act for which the schedule is prima facie to be used.

Whether a particular requirement prescribed by a form is mandatory or directory may have to be decided in each case having regard to the purpose or object of the requirement and its interrelation with other enacting provisions of the statute.

External Aids in Interpretation

The Court can consider resources outside the Act in interpreting and finding out the purposes of the Act.

1. Parliamentary History
Generally the Supreme Court does not consider the Parliamentary history because it is enunciated by English Courts. But on many occasions, the Court used this aid in resolving questions of construction.

It has already been noticed that the Court is entitled to take into account “such external or historical facts as may be necessary to understand the subject-matter of the statute”, or to have regard to “the surrounding circumstances” which existed at the time of passing of the statute.

2. Reference to Reports of Committees
The report of a Select Committee or other Committee on whose report an enactment is based, can be looked into “so as to see the background against which the legislation was enacted”.

When Parliament has enacted a statute as recommended by the Report of a Committee and there is ambiguity or uncertainty in any provision of the statute, the Court may have regard to the report of the Committee for ascertaining the intention behind the provision.

Present trends in the European Economic Community Countries and the European Court, however, is to interpret treaties, conventions, statutes, etc. by reference to travaux preparatories, that is, all preparatory records such as reports and other historical material.

3. Reference to other Statutes
It has already been stated that a statute must be read as a whole as words are to be understood in their context. Extension of this rule of context, permits reference to other statutes in pari materia, i.e. statutes dealing with the same subject matter or forming part of the same system.

Statutes are in pari materia which relate to the same person or thing, or to the same class of persons or things. The regulations themselves cannot alter or vary the meaning of the words of a statute, but they may be looked at as being an interpretation placed by the appropriate Government department on the words of the statute.

Though the regulations cannot control construction of the Act, yet they may be looked at, to assist in the interpretation of the Act and may be referred to as working out in detail the provisions of the Act consistently with their terms.

4. Dictionaries
When a word is not defined in the Act itself, it is permissible to refer to dictionaries to find out the general sense in which that word is understood in common parlance. However, in selecting one out of the various meanings of the word, regard must always be had to the context as it is a fundamental rule that “the meaning of words and expressions used in an Act must take their colour from the context in which they appear”.

Dictionaries are not dictators of statutory construction where the definition clause furnish a different denotation

5. Use of Foreign Decisions
Use of foreign decisions of countries following the same system of jurisprudence as ours and rendered on statutes in pari materia has been permitted by practice in Indian Courts. The assistance of such decisions is subject to the qualification that prime importance is always to be given to the language of the relevant Indian Statute, the circumstances and the setting in which it is enacted and the Indian conditions where it is to be applied

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