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Basic Principles of Statutory Interpretation of Law

Meaning of Interpretation or Construction

While interpretation of a legal provision is always dependent on the fact of any given case, the application of a statutory provision would always depend on the exact facts of a given case. As per SALMOND, ‘By interpretation or construction is meant, the process by which the courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the Legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed. 

Interpretation differs from Construction, however. The former is the art of finding out the true sense of any form of words, which also means the sense that the author intends to convey. It may also be understood as the process by which the courts determine the meaning of a statutory provision for the purpose of applying it to the situation before them. Construction on the other hand, is the drawing of conclusions, respects subjects that lie beyond the direct expression of the text from elements known from and given in the text.

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. It is to be understood according to the intent of its maker, with the guidance furnished by the accepted principles of interpretation. “The object of interpreting a statute is to ascertain the intention of the Legislature enacting it”, South Asia Industries (Pvt.) Ltd. S. Sarup Singh, AIR 1966 SC 346. 

Words in any language are not scientific symbols having any precise or definite meaning, and language is but an imperfect medium to convey one’s thought, to an audience consisting of persons of various shades of opinion. The function of courts too, is only to expound, and not to legislate. 

The problem of interpretation, is a problem of meaning of words and their effectiveness as a medium of expression to communicate a particular thought. Words and phrases are symbols that stimulate references to referents. But words of any language are capable of referring to different referents in different contexts or times. However, there always lies the difficulty of borderline cases , within or outside the connotation of a word. Language, therefore, has high chances of misunderstanding.

The law is a pragmatic instrument of social order and an interpretative effort must be imbued with the statutory purpose. A construction that would promote the purpose or object of an Act, even if not expressed, is to be preferred. “There is no possibility of mistaking midnight for noon; but at what precise moment twilight becomes darkness is hard to determine.” (Jane Straford Boyse v. John T. Rassborough, (1857) 6 HLC p. 45:10 ER 1192 (HL). Thus, the courts, although conscious of such a dividing line,, do not attempt to draw it for reasons of practical impossibility; however, sometimes, attempts it after laying down a working line; howsoever pragmatic, it may or may not be. There is a marginal area in which the courts mould or creatively interpret legislation and thus finish or refine legislation which comes to them in a state requiring varying degrees of refinement. Since, interpretation always implies a degree of discretion and choice, creativity, a degree which is especially high in certain areas such as constitutional adjudication. Some judges proclaim that they perform creative functions even in interpretation, however, this may sometimes lead to conclusions which have a strong legislative flavor. Interpretation should not be regarded as a search for the purpose of the Legislature or even for the purpose of the statute, but as one of ‘attribution of purpose’, in venturing to do justice. 

The first and primary rule of construction is that the intention of the Legislature must be found in the words used by the Legislature itself. The question is not what may be supposed to have been intended but what has been said. The key to the opening of every law is the reason and spirit of the law. Each word, phrase or sentence, is to be construed in the light of the general purpose of the Act itself. Interpretation must depend on the text and the context, as they are the bases of interpretation. If the text is the texture, context gives the colour. Neither can be ignored. A particular clause or expression is construed by construing the whole instrument and any dominant purposes that it may express. The Legislative function cannot be usurped under the disguise of interpretation, and the danger of an a priori determination of the meaning of a provision based on the preconceived notions of ideological structure or scheme should be avoided. Caution is all the more necessary. 

The correct interpretation is one that best harmonizes the words with the object of the statute. A right construction of the Act can only be attained if its whole scope and object together with an analysis of its wording and the circumstances in which it is enacted are taken into consideration. It's all about interpretation and not about interpolation. 

The rules of interpretation are not rules of law; they are guides and such of them which serve no useful purpose, can be rejected and new rules can be evolved in their place. They are aids to construction, presumptions or pointers. 

The shift towards use of plain language has attached with it, a lot of controversy. The language of our legislation cannot be reduced to baby talk for consumption of the masses, and the attainment of precision, and accuracy. A good draft contains a clear expression of intent, uses a consistent terminology throughout, avoids passive voice and aspirational statements The terms defined are either authoritatively defined in the draft or by judicial interpretation. Sentences are short. Simple words commonly used in ordinary speech are preferred. Convoluted sub-division is avoided and so is repetition. 

Difference between purposive and literal construction: The difference is in truth of one degree only. The real distinction lies in the balance to be struck in the particular case between the literal meaning of the words on the one hand and the context and purpose of the measure in which they appear on the other.

Statute must be read as a whole in its context

The statute as a whole, the previous state of the law, other statutes in pari materia, the general scope of the statute, and the mischief it is to remedy, is the basic context of any statute. The elementary rule states that the intention of the Legislature must be found by reading the statute as a whole. Every clause needs to be construed with reference to the context and other clauses of the Act, to make a consistent enactment of the whole statute or series of statutes relating to the subject-matter. It is the most natural and genuine exposition of a statute.

The conclusion that the language is plain or ambiguous can only be truly arrived at by studying the statute as a whole. How far and to what extent each component influences the meaning of the other , would be different in each given case. Each word, must however, be allowed to play its role, however significant or insignificant it may be. in achieving the legislative intent. Each section must be construed as a whole, whether or not one of the parts is a saving clause or a proviso. They may be interdependent, each portion throwing light, if need be on the rest.

A question of construction only arises when one side submits that a particular provision of an Act covers the facts of the case and the other submits that it does not or it may be agreed it applies, but the difference arises to its application.

Statute to be construed to make it effective and workable: However plain the meaning be

The interpretation should be construed to make the statute workable, which secures the object, unless crucial omissions or clear direction makes that end unattainable. The doctrine of purposive reconstruction may be taken recourse to for the purpose of giving it full effect to the statutory provisions. The meaning of the statute must be considered rather than rendering the statute a nullity.

Appraisal of the principle of plain meaning

Plain words require no construction. This starts with the premise that the words are plain and that the conclusion can be arrived at after construing the words. This also means that once the conclusion has been arrived at, that the words/ sentence can bear only one meaning, the effect to that meaning is to be given.

Language which in its construction results in absurdity, inconsistency, hardship or strange consequence is not readily accepted as unambiguous. Here unambiguous means 'unambiguous' in its context. So ambiguity need not necessarily be a grammatical ambiguity, but one of appropriateness of the meaning in a particular context. Also, differences of judicial opinion as to the true meaning of certain words need not necessarily lead to the conclusion that those words are ambiguous.

“Statutory enactment must ordinarily be construed according to its plain meaning and no words shall be added, altered or modified unless it is plainly necessary to do so to prevent a provision from being unintelligible, absurd, unreasonable, unworkable or totally irreconcilable with the test of the statute.” [Bhavnagar University v. Palitana Sugar Mill (P.) Ltd., (2003) 2 SCC 111 : AIR 2003]


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