Rules of Interpretation

There are generally two types of tools of general principles of interpretation which are applied by courts. These are:

1. Statutory

It mainly includes the General Clauses Act, 1897. For example, the definition of property defined under the General Clauses Act, 1897; Transfer of Property Act, 1882; Registration Act, 1908.

2. Non- statutory

It consists of various rules of interpretation:
2.1) Literal
2.2) Ejusdem Generis
2.3) Exceptional
2.4) Reasonable
2.5) Harmonious
2.6) Beneficial

2.1 Literal Rule of Interpretation

The Literal Rule of Interpretation states that words should be given their ordinary, i.e., natural meaning. The literal meaning of the statue needs to be examined. This is also known as the Plain Meaning Rule. The construction of an Act depends on its wording. No additional words can be used and neither is any substitution of words allowed. The first and foremost rule is that the words are interpreted as they are without any changes. There is a maxim for this- Absoluta Sententia Expositore Non Indiget which means that if plain words give only one meaning then they should not be interpreted further. Case by case it need to be derived whether Acts want to use these words in there technical terms or in normal parlance.

In General Accident Fire & Life Assurance Corporation Limited v. Jarmohomnad Abdul Rahim[1] it has been emphasized that in interpreting the provisions of limitation, “equitable considerations are out of place, and the strict grammatical meaning of the words is the only safe guide.” There can be no doubt that this principle has always been acted upon by the courts. This principle was re-affirmed by the apex court in Boota Mal.v. The Union of India.[2]

Motipur Zamindari Pvt. Ltd. vs. State of Bihar[3]: the question raised was whether the Bihar Sales Tax Act which exempted vegetables should exempt sugarcane or not. Supreme Court opined that if we look at the dictionary or botanical meaning then vegetables include sugarcane, but is not something which is grown by people in there garden and therefore is not a part of vegetables. So, sugarcane was liable to be included in the category of tax paying essentials.

2.1.1 Criticism

Those who do not follow this rule believe that it is based on assumptions; that words are not at all perfect due to which judges try to impose their own interpretation in order to determine the true meaning of a statute.

As judges are not a part of legislature, this is the oldest of the rules still in use today. Also, since there is always the fear that a particular interpretation may be the equivalent of making law, some judges prefer to adhere to the law’s literal wording.

2.2 Rule of Ejusdem Generis

Ejusdem Generis means of the same kind. We look at the other things given in the category and then find the next one. Normally, general words should be giving there natural meaning unless required otherwise. But, when a general word follows a specific word of distinct category, the general word may be given a restrictive meaning of the same category.

The basis of the principle of Ejusdem Generis is that if the legislature intended general words to be used in unrestricted sense, it would not have bothered to use particular words at all.

R. v. Edmundson[4], It was stated by Lord Campbell “Where there were general words following particular and specific words, the general words must be confined to things of the same kind as those specified.” By applying this rule the presumed intention of the Legislature is used to restrict the ambit of wide and general expressions.

Therefore the ejusdem generis is applied when-
(a) the statute contains an enumeration of specific words
(b) the general term follows the enumeration
(c) there is no indication of a different legislative intent
(d) the subjects of the enumeration constitute a class or category
(e) that class or category is not exhausted by the enumeration

For Example:- There is an act which deals with the slaughter of animals for food for human consumption and  the expression “cows, goats, sheep and other animals” is written in it. Now the question arises whether the following animals will be covered in the above expression:
1. Cats and Dogs
2. Poultry
3. Wild animals
4. Pig
It does not extend to cats or dogs, as these are not commonly eaten, or to poultry, as these do not have the same physical characteristics as those listed in the act,  or even to wild animals as they are not hunted for their meat. But in places where pig is used for human food, it  is covered under other animals.

2.3 Exceptional Rule of Interpretation

In many Acts there are bogus words which do not have any meaning. Either these words need to be removed or it needs to be understood why the legislators used these words. In order to do the latter, we need to remove all the hindrances so that the act could function smoothly. Exceptional rule is generally used to interpret words like and, or, may, shall.

For example:- If in a certain Act, there are three clauses such as clause 1 ‘and’ clause 2 ‘and’ clause 3 then the fulfilment of all these three clauses is mandatory but if ‘or’ is used then either of them can be fulfilled; all of them need not be fulfilled. Similarly ‘may’ talks about discretion i.e. you ‘may do so’ or you ‘may not do so’ whereas ‘shall’ is an obligation and you need to do so mandatorily.

2.4 Reasonable Rule of Interpretation

Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat is a legal maxim which means while understanding a statute it need to be interpreted meaningfully or sensibly. If one interpretation of a statue gives a vague meaning and another interpretation of the same statue gives a sensible meaning then the second interpretation ought to be followed.

For Example: – “I am really angry. Just go” In this case you won’t argue with the person and obviously leave silently, as it was an order given to you.
If someone is saying these words to us, our answer would be “tell me what’s the problem? I am not going anywhere.” This is called the rule of reasonable interpretation or construction. Now you had not followed the real words but searched its real interpretation why this or that is happening. This rule won’t apply when meaning is clear and reasonable construction is not required.

2.5 Rule of Harmonious Construction

If there is confusion in any Act and there exist two possible interpretations out of which the first one is matching with the object of the act and the second is opposite to the same, we need to choose that interpretation which is in accordance with the objective and the another interpretation need to be rejected. The reason behind this is that any Act is not passed in parts but as a whole so we need to adopt those interpretations which are matching with the objective, i.e., the ones which are in harmony with the statue. This is the rule of harmonious construction.

For Example:- Keshvananda Bharti vs. State of Kerala[5]; Article 13(2) of Indian Constitution states that parliament cannot amend the fundamental rights whereas Article 368 states that parliament can amend whatever they feel is necessary in our constitution. While applying rule of harmonious construction the Apex Court made the basic structure doctrine and stated that making amendments is the basic right of the parliament; they can amend the whole constitution if they wish but the basic structure need to be protected in all such scenarios.

It is a settled rule that an interpretation which results in hardship, injustice, inconvenience or anomaly should be avoided and that which supports the sense of justice should be adopted. The Court leans in favor of an interpretation which conforms to justice and fair play and prevents injustice.[6]

2.6 Beneficial rule of interpretation

This rule was made during Hayden’s case. So, it is also known by the name of Mischievous Rule, Purposive Construction or Hayden’s rule. This rule says when literal meaning can’t be followed, then interpretation should be done in such a way that it suppresses the mischief and advances the remedy. This rule simply states that if there is a current law in which any of the provisions are having multiple interpretations then we need to ask the following four questions:
1. What was the law before making the current act?
2. What was the mischief for which the law did not provide?/ What were the wrongs or defects which it did not cover (the previous law) ?
3. What is the remedy that the current act is providing for those defects?
4. What is the reason to bring that remedy into force?

In simple terms, beneficial or mischievous rule means that whatever wrong or mischief the current Act is targeting, only that interpretation of the act needs to be accounted and others can be easily rejected by answering the above-mentioned questions.

In the case of Thomson v. Lord Clan Morris[7], Lord Lindley M.R. stated that “In interpreting any statutory enactment regard should not only be paid to the words used, but also to the history of the Act and the reasons which lead to its being passed.”

In the case of The Commissioner of Income Tax, Madhya Pradesh and Bhopal vs. Sodra Devi [8], it was held by the Apex Court that “Unless there is an ambiguity, it would not be open to the Court to depart from the normal rule of construction which is that the intention of the legislature should be primarily to gather from the words which are used. It is only when the words used are ambiguous that they would stand to be examined and considered on surrounding circumstances and constitutionally proposed practices.”


[1] (1941) 43 BOMLR 346

[2] 1962 AIR 1716

[3] 953 AIR 320, 1953 SCR 720

[4] (1859) 28 L.J.M.C. 21

[5] AIR 1973 SC 1461

[6] Union of India v. B.S. Aggarwal (AIR 1998 S.C. 1537)

[7] [1900] 1 CH. 718

[8] 1957 AIR 832

Krishan Kant Sharma from JIMS, School of Law, Greater Noida

“Lawyer professionally, passionately Poet”

Editor: Sanskriti SOod

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