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Guiding Rules of Interpretation

Updated: May 17

In the last article the author discussed Basic Principles of Statutory Interpretation of Law and in this article the author discusses Guiding Rules of Interpretation.


The intention of the Legislature is primarily to be gathered from the language used. The words of a statute never should, in interpretation, be added to or subtracted from without almost a necessity.

I. Avoiding addition or substitution of words:

It is wrong and dangerous to proceed by substituting some other words for words in a statute. The rules of interpretation do not permit addition or deletion, unless the section itself stands meaningless or of doubtful meaning.

II. Casus Omissus:

It is an application of the same principle that a matter which should have been, but has not been provided in a statute cannot be supplied by courts. To do so, will constitute legislation, and not construction. The duty of the Court is to interpret the words that the legislature has used. Those words may be ambiguous, but, even if they are, the power and duty of the Court to travel outside them on a voyage of discovery are strictly limited.

It is pertinent to mention that although a court cannot supply a real casus omissus, it is equally clear that it should not so interpret a statute as to create a casus omissus when there is really none. A casus omissus cannot be supplied by the court except in the case of clear necessity and when reason for it is found in the four corners of the statute itself but at the same time a casus omissus should not be readily inferred.

III. Avoiding rejection of words:

As on the one hand, it is not permissible to add words or to fill in a gap or lacuna, on the other hand, effort should be made to give meaning to each and every word used by the legislature. It is not a sound principle of construction to brush aside words in a statute as being inapposite surplusage, if they can have appropriate application in circumstances conceivably within the contemplation of the statute.

In the interpretation of statutes, the courts always presume that the legislature inserted every part thereof for a purpose and the legislative intention is that every part of the statute should have effect. Therefore the words should not be wasted, except for compelling reasons.

IV. Departure from the rule:

The court, in the process of discharging its interpretative function, may correct the obvious drafting errors, after having considered the intended purpose, and the inadvertence due to which the effect to the purpose could not have been given, and the substance of the provision, the parliament would have made.

A departure from the rule of literal construction may be legitimate so as to avoid any part of the statute becoming meaningless. It may therefore, be permissible to supply words, which appear to have been accidentally omitted or adopt a construction, which deprives certain existing words of all meaning. Application of the mischief rule or purposive construction may also enable reading of words by implication, when there is no doubt about the purpose, intended to be achieved.

At certain times, the unskillfulness of the draftsman, or the haste to put forward a law, brings about a law, which apparently runs ineffective because of the language or usage/ non-usage of certain words. In such a scenario, the surplus words can be rejected to make the statute workable and effective. The absolute intractability of the language at times, thus, sometimes is the reason for the ineffectiveness.

The Legislature sometimes uses superfluous words or provisions or even tautological expressions because of ignorance of law or as a matter of caution. Certain superfluous provisions, however, cannot lay the foundation for an argument resting on the maxim meaning ‘express mention of one or more persons or things of a particular class may be regarded as by implication excluding all others of that class’. These superfluous provisions always give rise to difficulty of construction.


I. Natural and grammatical meaning

The natural, ordinary or popular sense is construed according to their grammatical and terminological meaning, unless leading to absurdity, repugnance, contradiction, stultification or inconsistency of any sort. The natural implication of such words are most preferable to be adopted, as the intention of the Legislature stands supreme, unless such a construction is either by the preamble or by the context of the captioned words, controlled or altered. In case a special specific sense, different from the ordinary grammatical sense, is implied, it must be understood in the said context. The strict grammatical meaning of the words, is in any scenario, the only safe guide.

Departure from the literal rule (which is otherwise cardinal) should be done only in very rare cases and ordinarily there should be judicial restraint in this connection. A departure form the rule of literal construction outside the recognized limits in the guise of liberal or strict construction leads to unwarranted expansion or restriction of the meaning of words and gives rise to serious errors.

II. Explanation of the rule

No word has an absolute meaning, as they cant be defined in vacuo, or without reference to some context. A word is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances, time and context.

III. Exact meaning preferred to loose meaning

Words are used in an act of Parliament correctly and exactly, not loosely and inexactly. Those who assert that this rule has been broke, the burden lies on them to establish their proposition.

IV. Technical words in technical sense

Some words have special meanings in trade, business etc., and should be used accordingly, as a necessary consequence of the principle. Evidence to show that a word has acquired a special meaning in the business or industry concerned is admissible.

On the same principle, when words acquire a technical meaning because of their consistent use by the Legislature in a particular sense or because of their authoritative construction by superior courts, they are to be construed in a similar sense in a subsequent legislation, as the legal sense of the word.


I. General

The words of the statute when there is an iota of doubt about their meaning, are to be understood in the sense in which they best harmonize with the subject of the enactment and the object which the Legislature has in view.the meaning found is not so much as in a strict grammatical or etymological propriety of language, not even in the popular sense or use, as in the subject or the situation or the object. The object of the legislature should be effectuated. An object oriented and purposive approach should be adopted. Legislative futility should be ruled out. The meaning of  word is not to be taken in abstract, but regard must be given to the setting in which the word occurs as also to the subject-matter and object.

II. Rule in Heydon’s case

When the material words are capable of bearing two or more constructions, the most firmly established rule of construction of such words “of all statutes in general” is the rule laid down in Heydon’s case. This is also the “purposive rule” or “mischief rule”, and it aims at identifying the mischief, the law prior to it, the remedy that the act has provided and the reason for such a remedy. Suppression of mischief and advancement of remedy has been prioritized.

In furtherance to the above guiding rules, it should be taken care that :–

  • Hardship, inconvenience, injustice, absurdity and anomaly is to be avoided. 

  • Principles of sincerity, substantial justice and fairness are to be applied. 

  • Inconsistency and repugnancy is to be avoided.

  • Harmonious construction should be aimed at. 

  • Avoidance of uncertainty or friction in the system which the statute purports to regulate.


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