Basic Principles of Statutory Interpretation
1. STATUTORY INTERPRETATION
2. INTERPRETATION AND CONSTRUCTION
3. INTENTION OF THE LEGISLATURE
4. STATUE MUST BE READ AS A WHOLE IN ITS CONTEXT
5. INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONSISTENCY
6. STATUTE TO BE CONSTRUCTED TO MAKE IT EFFECTIVE AND WORKABLE
7. IF MEANING IS PLAIN, EFFECT MUST BE GIVEN TO IT IRRESPECTIVE OF CONSEQUENCES
8. APPRAISAL OF THE PRINCIPLE OF PLAIN MEANING
Statutory interpretation is the procedure of rendering and enforcing legislation. Some amount of interpretation is always essential when a case involves a statute. Sometimes the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in most cases, there is some ambiguity or vagueness in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various means and methods of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory interpretation, legislative history, and purpose.
In common law jurisdictions, the judiciary may apply rules of statutory interpretation to legislation enacted by the legislature or to deligated legislation such as administrative agency regulations.
Interpretation and Construction
Ordained Laws, especially the modern Acts and Rules, are drafted by legal experts and it could be expected that the language used will leave little room for interpretation or construction. But the experience of all those, who have to bear and share the task of application of law, has been different. It is rather often that we observe courts and lawyers busy in unfolding the meaning of ambiguous words and expressions and resolving inconsistencies. The age old process of application of the enacted law has led to formulation of certain rules of interpretation or construction. “By interpretation or construction is meant”, says SALMOND, “the process by which the court seeks to ascertain the meaning of Legislatures through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed”. It is said that there is a distinction between the two expressions. As explained by COOLEY: “Interpretation differs from Construction, in that the former is the art of finding out the true scene of any form of word; that is, the sense which their author intended to convey; and enabling others to derive from them the same idea which the author intended to convey. Construction, on the other hand, is the drawing of conclusions, respecting subjects that lie beyond the direct expression of the text from elements known from and given in the text; conclusions which are in the sprit though not within the letter of the law”. The distinction, however, “has been largely relegated to the realm of academic discussion”, and has been criticized as “erroneous”. Even conceding that there may be some abstract distinction between the two, it cannot be doubted, as observed by WHITE, J. that “in common usage interpretation and construction are usually understood as having the same significance”. It may be added that presently works follow this common usage and the two expressions have been used as synonyms.
Intention of the Legislature
A statute is an edict of the Legislature and the conventional way of interpreting or construing a statute is to seek the ‘intention’ of its maker. A statute is to be construed according “to the intent of them that make it” and “the duty of the judicature is to act upon the true intention of the Legislature – the mens or sentential legis”. The expression ‘intention of the Legislature’ is shorthand reference to the meaning of the words used by the legislature objectively determined with the guidance furnished by the accepted principle of interpretation. If a statutory provision is open to more than one interpretation, the court has to choose that interpretation which represents the true intention of the Legislature, in other words, the ‘legal meaning’ or the ‘true meaning’ of the statutory provision. This task is not an easy one and more often than not difficulties arise because of various reasons. To mention a few:
- Words are imperfect symbols to communicate intent. They are ambiguous and change in meaning over time.
- Unforeseen situations are inevitable, and new technologies and cultures make application of existing laws difficult.
- Uncertainties may be added to the statute in the course of enactment, such as the need for compromise or catering to special intrested groups.
Therefore, the court must try to determine how a statute should be enforced. This requires statutory construction. It is a tenet of statutory construction that the legislature is supreme (assuming constitutionality) when creating law and that the court is merely an interpreter of the law. In practice, by performing the construction the court can make sweeping changes in the operation of the law. The judges of the superior courts who form a dissenting minority on a question of construction of a statute are not ignorant of the rules of construction; the difference of opinion results mainly because of the sprit in which each judge applies the rules and how far he can go to make the words promote the object and policy which the statue was designed to achieve.
Statue must be Read as a whole in its Context
When the issue arises, as to the significance of a certain provision in a statute, it is not only legitimate but appropriate to read that provision in its context. The context here means, the statute as whole, the previous state of law, other statutes in pari material, the general scope of the statute and the mischief that it was intended to remedy. This statement of the rule was later fully adopted by the Supreme.
“A statute is construed so as to make it effective and operative.” This means, that the intention of the legislature must be found by reading the statute as a whole, the purpose of the statute is to make the law accomplish a purpose and produce a desired effect. This may only be accomplished if the statute is read and construed as a whole and not in parts. This rule or principle has been referred to as “elementary rule”, “compelling rule” and also as “settled rule”.
It has been stated by SINHA, C.J.I: “The court must ascertain the intention of the Legislature by directing its attention not merely to the clause to be construed but to the entire statute; it must compare the clause with the other parts of the law, and the setting in which the clause to be interpreted occurs”
When a clause is inclosed in a statute in plain or simple terms, it may be interpreted in different ways. It may bear one meaning in one context and another in a different context. The conclusion that the language used by the legislature is plain or ambiguous can only be truly arrived at by studying the statute as a whole.
SIR JOHN NICHOL has observed that: “The key to opening of every law is the reason and the sprit of the law – it is animus imponentis, the intention of the law makers, expressed in the law itself, taken as a whole. Hence to arrive at the true meaning of any particular phrase in a statute, that particular phrase is not to be viewed detached from the context”.
Thus it may be noted that words, phrases and clauses occurring in a statute are not to be taken in isolation or in a separate or detached manner. It has to be read together and construed in the light of purpose and object of an Act itself and as a whole.
Internal and external consistency
It is presumed that a statute will be interpreted so as to be internally consistent. A particular section of the statute shall not be divorced from the rest of the act. The 'ejusdem generis' (Latin for "of the same kind") rule applies to resolve the problem of giving meaning to groups of words where one of the words is ambiguous or inherently unclear. The rule results that where "general words follow enumerations of particular classes or persons or things, the general words shall be construed as applicable only to persons or things of the same general nature or kind as those enumerated. Thus, in a statute forbidding the concealment on one's person of "pistols, revolvers, derringers, or other dangerous weapons," the term "dangerous weapons" may be construed to comprehend only dangerous weapons of the kind enumerated, i.e., firearms, or perhaps more narrowly still, handguns. Here, the term "dangerous weapons" must be given a meaning of the "same kind" as the word of established meaning.
A statute shall not be interpreted so as to be inconsistent with other statutes. Where there is an inconsistency, the judiciary will attempt to provide a harmonious interpretation.
Statute to be Constructed to make it Effective and Workable
The court strongly leans against a construction or interpretation which reduces the statute to a futility. A statute or any enacting provision therein must be so constructed as to make it effective and operative “on the principle expressed in the maxim: ut res magis valeat quam pereat”. It is an application of this principle that the courts while pronouncing upon the constitutionality and prefer a construction which keeps the statute within the competence of the Legislature. The importance of the principle can be judged from the fact that there is hardly any reported decision, where a statute may have been declared void for sheer vagueness, although theoretically it may be possible to reach such a conclusion in case of “absolute intractability of the language used,” or when” it is impossible to resolve the ambiguity,” i.e., when the language is absolutely meaningless.
If Meaning is Plain, Effect must be given to it Irrespective of Consequences
When the words of a statute are clear, plain and/or unambiguous, i.e., they are reasonably susceptible to only one meaning; the courts are bound to give effect to that meaning irrespective of consequences. The rule stated by TINDAL, C.J. in Sussex Peerage case is in the following form: “if the words of the statute are in themselves precise and unambiguous, then no more can be necessary than to expound those words in their natural and ordinary sense. The words themselves do alone in such cases best declare the intent of the lawgiver”.
Appraisal of the Principle of Plain Meaning
It may look somewhat paradoxical that plain meaning rule is not plain and requires some explanation. The rule, that plain words require no construction or interpretation, starts with the premise that the words are plain, which is itself a conclusion reached after construing the words. It is not possible to decide whether some words are plain or ambiguous unless they are studied in their context and construed. The rule, therefore, in reality means that after you have construed the words and have come to the conclusion that they can bear only one meaning, your duty is to give effect to that meaning.
For a proper application of the rule to a given statute, it is necessary, therefore, to determine first whether the language used is plain or ambiguous. Warning has sometimes been given that ambiguity should not be assumed where there is none. Language which on its construction results in absurdity, inconsistency, hardship or strange consequence is not readily accepted as unambiguous.
 “It is general judicial experience that in matters of law involving questions of constructing statutory or constitutional provisions, two views are often reasonably possible and when judicial approach has to make a choice between the tow reasonably possible views, the process of decision making is often very difficult and delicate:” (Keshav Mills Co. Ltd v. CIT, AIR 1965 Sc 1636, p. 1644) 1965 (2) SCR 908.
 In some cases the Draftsman has been severely criticized. Regarding section 22(2) (b) of the Limitation Act, 1939, (UK) it was said that the section was so obscure that “the Draftsman must have been of unsound mind”: [Kirby v. Leather, (1965) 2 All ER 441, p. 445 (CA) (DANCKWERTS, LJ)]. In dealing with section 23-A of the Income Tax Act, 1922, the Supreme Court observed: “ The Act contains many mind twisting formulae but section 23-A along with some other sections takes the place of pride amongst them” [ CIT, Gujarat v. Distributors (Baroda) (Pvt.) Ltd., AIR 1972 SC 288, p. 291: 1972 (1) SCR 726].
 SALMOND: “Jurisprudence” 11th Edition, p. 152.
 In Re Sea Customs Act, AIR 1963 SC 1760, p. 1794 (HIDAYATULLAH, L) : 1964(3) SCR 787
 COOLEY: “Constitutional Limitations”, Vol. I, p. 97; referred in Re Sea Customs Act, AIR 1963 SC 1760, p. 1794 (HIDAYATULLAH, L) : 1964(3) SCR 787.
 CRAFORD: “Statutory Construction” p. 241.
 SUTHERLAND: “ Statutory Construction”, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Article 4504, p. 319
 United States v. F.W Keitel, 211 US 370, p. 386: 53 Law Ed 230, p. 240.
 Vishnu Pratap Sugar Works (private) Ltd. v. Chief Inspector of Stamp, U.P., AIR 1968 SC 102, p. 104: 1967(3) SCR 920.
 RMD Chamarbaugwala v. Union of India, AIR 1957 SC 628, p. 631: 1957 SCR 930.
 SALMOND: “Jurisprudence”, 11th Edition, p. 152.
 BENNION: “Statutory Interpretation”, (3rd Edition) pp. 14, 303, 343.
 LORD REID: Jones v. Secretary of State, (1972) 1 All ER 145 (HL)
 Union of India v. Elphinstone Spinning and Weaving Co. Ltd., 2001 (1) JT SC 536 p. 563: AIR 2001 SC 724 p. 740 (Constitutional Bench).
 State of W.B. v. Union of India, AIR 1963 SC 1241, p. 1265: 1964(1) SCR 371.
 Attorney – General v. HRH Prince Ernest Augustus of Hanover, (1957) 1 All ER 49, p. 55(HL); Union of India v. Sankalchand, AIR 1977 SC 2328, p. 2336: (1977) 4 SCC 193: 1977 SCC (Lab) 435.
 Darshan Singh Balwant Singh v. State of Punjab, AIR 1953 SC 83, p. 86: 1953 SCR 319.
 M. Pentiah v. Veeramallappa Muddala, AIR 1961 SC 1107, p. 1111: 1961 (2) SCR 259.
 CIT v. S. Teja Singh, AIR 1959 SC 666, p. 668.
 Tinsukhia Electric Supply Co. Ltd. v. State of Assam, AIR 1990 SC 123, p. 152: (1989) 3 SCC 709
 Nelson Mortis v. Union of India, AIR 1992 SC 1981, p. 194: (1992) 4 SCC 711
 Sussex Peerage Case, (1844) 11 Cl & F 85, p. 143.
 D. Saibaba v. Bar Council of India, AIR 2003 SC 2502.
About the Author
Mridula R. Ravindran
Final year Law Student.
Army Institute of Law.