Rules of Statutory Interpretation: Notes

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Rules of Statutory Interpretation

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Discuss the rules of statutory interpretation with the help of decided cases.
Explain – Literal Rule, Mischief Rule (aka Rule in Haydon’s case), Golden Rule, Rule of Harmonious Construction, Nosciur a sociis, Ejusdem generis, Reddendo singul singuis.
State the circumstances when these rules are applied by the courts. 

Statutory interpretation is the process of interpreting and applying legislation to decide cases. Interpretation is necessary when the case involves subtle or ambiguous aspects of a statute. Generally, the words of a statute have a plain and straightforward meaning. But in some cases, there may be ambiguity or vagueness in the words of the statute that must be resolved by the judge. The reason for the ambiguity or vagueness of legislation is the fundamental nature of language.
It is not always possible to precisely transform the intention of the legislature into written words. Interpreting a statute to determine whether it applies to a given set of facts often boils down to analyzing whether a single word or short phrase covers some element of the factual situation before the judge. The expansiveness of language necessarily means that there will often be equally good or equally unconvincing arguments for two competing interpretations.
A judge is then forced to resort to the documentation of legislative intent, which may also be unhelpful, and then finally to his or her own judgment of what outcome is ultimately fair and logical under the totality of the circumstances. To find the meanings of statutes, judges use various tools 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 delegated legislation such as administrative agency regulations.

Over time, various methods of statutory interpretation and construction have fallen in and out of favor. Some of the important rules of statutory interpretation are:

  1. Primary Rules – 
    1. Literal Rule (aka Plain Meaning Rule) – It means that statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statute unless a statute explicitly defines some of its terms otherwise. In other words, the law must be read, word for word, and it should not divert from its true meaning.
    2. Mischief rule – This rule attempts to determine the legislator’s intention. Originating from a 16th-century case in the United Kingdom, its main aim is to determine the “mischief and defect” that the statute in question has set out to remedy, and what ruling would effectively implement this remedy.  Smith vs. Hughes [1960] 2 All E.R. 859
    3. Golden rule – It is a compromise between the plain meaning (or literal) rule and the mischief rule. Like the plain meaning rule, it gives the words of a statute their plain, ordinary meaning. However, when this may lead to an irrational result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the judge can depart from this meaning. In the case of homographs, where a word can have more than one meaning, the judge can choose the preferred meaning. If the word only has one meaning, and applying this meaning would lead to a bad decision, the judge can apply a completely different meaning.
    4. Rule of Harmonious Construction – when there are two provisions in a statute, which are in conflict with each other, they should be interpreted such that effect can be given to both and the construction which renders either of them inoperative and useless should not be adopted except in the last resort. Bengal immunity Co. vs. the State of Bihar (1955) 6 STC 446 (SC).
  2. Secondary Rules aka Rules of Language – 
    1. Noscitur a sociis – When a word is ambiguous, its meaning may be determined by reference to the rest of the statute.
    2. Ejusdem Generis – When a list of two or more specific descriptors is followed by more general descriptors, the otherwise wide meaning of the general descriptors must be restricted to the same class, if any, of the specific words that precede them e.g. vehicles in “cars, motorbikes, motor powered vehicles” would be interpreted in a limited sense and therefore cannot be interpreted as including airplanes.
    3. Reddendo Singula Singulis – When a list of words has a modifying phrase at the end, the phrase refers only to the last word, e.g., firemen, policemen, and doctors in a hospital. Here,” in a hospital” only applies to doctors and not to firemen or policemen. 

Literal Rule
Statues often contain a “definitions” section, which explicitly defines the most important terms used in that statute. However, some statutes omit a definitions section entirely or fail to define a particular term. The literal rule, which is also known as the plain meaning rule, attempts to guide courts faced with litigation that turns on the meaning of a term not defined by the statute, or on that of a word found within a definition itself.
According to this rule, when a word does not contain any definition in a statute, it must be given its plain, ordinary, and literal meaning. If the word is clear, it must be applied, even though the intention of the legislature may have been different or the result is harsh or undesirable. The literal rule is what the law says instead of what the law means.
This is the oldest of the rules of construction and is still used today, primarily because judges are not supposed to legislate. As there is always the danger that a particular interpretation may be the equivalent to making a law, some judges prefer to adhere to the law’s literal wording.

When the words of a statute are clear, plain, 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. In J.P. Bansal v. State of Rajasthan 2003, SC observed that the intention of the legislature is primarily to be gathered from the language used, which means that attention should be paid to what has been said as also to what has not been saying. As a consequence, a construction that requires its support, addition, substitution, or removal of words or which results in the rejection of words as meaningless has to be avoided. This is in accordance with the case of Crawford vs Spooner, 1846, where the privy council noted that the courts cannot aid the legislature’s defective phrasing of an Act, they cannot add or mend, and by construction make up for deficiencies which are left there.

In Kannailala Sur vs Parammindhi Sadhu Khan 1957,  J Gajendragadkar says that if the words used in the statute are capable of only one construction then it is not open to the courts to adopt any other hypothetical construction on the ground that such construction is more consistent with the alleged objective and policy of the act.

In M V Joshi vs M V Shimpi, AIR 1961, relating to Food and Adulteration Act, it was contended that the act does not apply to butter made from curd. However, SC held that the word butter in the said act is plain and clear and there is no need to interpret it differently. Butter is butter whether made from milk or curd.

Thus, when the language of a provision is plain and clear, a court cannot enlarge the scope of the provision by the interpretive process. Further, a construction that requires for its support the addition of words or which results in the rejection of words as meaningless has to be avoided


  1. Proponents of the plain meaning rule claim that it prevents courts from taking sides in legislative or political issues.
  2. They also point out that ordinary people and lawyers do not have extensive access to secondary sources and thus depending on the ordinary meaning of the words is the safest route.
  3. It encourages precision in drafting.


  1. Opponents of the plain meaning rule claim that the rule rests on the erroneous assumption that words have a fixed meaning. Words are imprecise, leading justices to impose their own prejudices to determine the meaning of a statute. However, since little else is offered as an alternative discretion-confining theory, plain meaning survives. 
  2. Sometimes the use of the literal rule may defeat the intention of Parliament. For instance, in the case of Whiteley vs Chappel (1868; LR 4 QB 147), the court came to the reluctant conclusion that Whiteley could not be convicted of impersonating “any person entitled to vote” at an election because the person he impersonated was dead. Using a literal construction of the relevant statutory provision, the deceased was not “a person entitled to vote.” This, surely, could not have been the intention of Parliament. However, the literal rule does not take into account the consequences of a literal interpretation, only whether words have a clear meaning that makes sense within that context. If Parliament does not like the literal interpretation, then it must amend the legislation.
  3. It obliges the courts to fall back on standard common law principles of statutory interpretation. Legislation is drawn up with these principles in mind. However, these principles may not be appropriate to constitutional interpretation, which by its nature tends to lay down general principles. It is said that it seems wrong to parcel the Constitution as if it were a Finance Act.
  4. Clearly, the literal approach has another disadvantage in that one judge’s literal interpretation might be very different from another’s. Casey says: “What may seem plain to one judge may seem perverse and unreal to another.”
  5. It ignores the limitations of language.
  6. To place undue emphasis on the literal meaning of the words is to assume an unattainable perfection in draftsmanship.
  7. Judges have tended excessively to emphasize the literal meaning of statutory provisions without giving due weight to their meaning in wider contexts.

Mischief Rule
The Mischief Rule is used by judges in statutory interpretation in order to discover the legislature’s intention. It essentially asks the question: By creating an Act of Parliament what was the “mischief” that the previous or existing law did not cover and this act covers. This rule was developed by Lord Coke in Sir John Heydon’s Case, 1584, where it was stated that there were four points to be taken into consideration when interpreting a statute:

  1. What was the common law before the making of the act?
  2. What was the “mischief or defect” for which the common law did not provide?
  3. What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth?
  4. What is the true reason for the remedy?

The application of this rule gives the judge more discretion than the literal and golden rule as it allows him to effectively decide on Parliament’s intent. Legislative intent is determined by examining secondary sources, such as committee reports, treatises, law review articles, and corresponding statutes. The rule was further illustrated in the case of Smith v Hughes, 1960, where under the Street Offences Act 1959, it was a crime for prostitutes to “loiter or solicit in the street for the purposes of prostitution”. The defendants were calling to men in the street from balconies and tapping on windows. They claimed they were not guilty as they were not in the “street.” The judge applied the mischief rule to come to the conclusion that they were guilty as the intention of the Act was to cover the mischief of harassment from prostitutes.

This rule is of narrower application than the golden rule or the plain meaning rule, in that it can only be used to interpret a statute and only when the statute was passed to remedy a defect in the common law. This rule has often been used to resolve ambiguities in cases in which the literal rule cannot be applied. As seen In Smith v Hughes, the mischief approach gave a more sensible outcome than that of the literal approach.


  1. The Law Commission sees it as a far more satisfactory way of interpreting acts as opposed to the Golden or Literal rules.
  2. It usually avoids unjust or absurd results in sentencing


  1. It is seen to be out of date as it has been in use since the 16th century when common law was the primary source of law and parliamentary supremacy was not established.
  2. It gives too much power to the unelected judiciary which is argued to be undemocratic.
  3. In the 16th century, the judiciary would often draft acts on behalf of the king and was therefore well qualified in what mischief the act was meant to remedy, however, such is not the case anymore.

Golden Rule
This rule of statutory interpretation allows a shift from the ordinary sense of a word(s) if the overall content of the document demands it. This rule is a modification of the literal rule. It states that if the literal rule produces an absurdity, then the court should look for another meaning of the words to avoid that absurd result. The rule was evolved by Parke B (who later became Lord Wensleydale) in Becke v Smith, 1836  and in Grey v Pearson, 1857, who stated, “The grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified so as to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.”

It is a very useful rule in the construction of a statute as it allows to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the words used, and to the grammatical construction, unless that is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the statute itself, or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which case it allows the language to be varied or modified so as to avoid such inconvenience.

This rule may be used in two ways. It is applied most frequently in a narrow sense where there is some ambiguity or absurdity in the words themselves. For example, imagine there may be a sign saying “Do not use lifts in case of fire.” Under the literal interpretation of this sign, people must never use the lifts, in case there is a fire. However, this would be an absurd result, as the intention of the person who made the sign is obviously to prevent people from using the lifts only if there is currently a fire nearby. This was illustrated in the case of Lee vs Knapp 1967 QB where the interpretation of the word “stop” was involved. Under Road Traffic Act, 1960,  a person causing an accident “shall stop” after the accident. In this case, the driver stopped after causing the accident and then drove off. It was held that the literal interpretation of the word stop is absurd and that the requirement under the act was not fulfilled because the driver did not stop for a reasonable time so that interested parties can make inquiries from him about the accident.

The second use of the golden rule is in a wider sense, to avoid a result that is obnoxious to principles of public policy, even where words have only one meaning. Bedford vs Bedford, 1935, is another interesting case that highlighted the use of this rule. It concerned a case where a son murdered his mother and committed suicide. The courts were required to rule on who then inherited the estate, the mother’s family, or the son’s descendants. The mother had not made a will and under the Administration of Justice Act 1925 her estate would be inherited by her next of kin, i.e. her son. There was no ambiguity in the words of the Act, but the court was not prepared to let the son who had murdered his mother benefit from his crime. It was held that the literal rule should not apply and that the golden rule should be used to prevent the repugnant situation of the son inheriting. The court held that if the son inherits the estate that would amount to profiting from a crime and that would be repugnant to the act. 

Thus, the Golden rule implies that if a strict interpretation of a statute would lead to an absurd result then the meaning of the words should be so construed so as to lead to the avoidance of such absurdity. A further corollary to this rule is that in case there are multiple constructions to affect the Golden rule the one which favors the assessee should always be taken. This rule is also known as the Rule of Reasonable Construction.


  1. This rule prevents absurd results in some cases containing situations that are completely unimagined by the lawmakers.
  2. It focuses on imparting justice instead of blindly enforcing the law.


  1. The golden rule provides no clear means to test the existence or extent of absurdity. It seems to depend on the result of each individual case. Whilst the golden rule has the advantage of avoiding absurdities, it, therefore, has the disadvantage that no test exists to determine what is an absurdity.
  2. This rule tends to let the judiciary overpower the legislature by applying its own standards of what is absurd and what is not.

The purposive approach
This approach has emerged in more recent times. Here the court is not just looking to see what the gap was in the old law, it is making a decision as to what they felt Parliament meant to achieve. Lord Denning in the Court of Appeal stated in Magor and St. Mellons Rural District Council v Newport Corporation, 1950, “we sit here to find out the intention of Parliament and of ministers and carry it out, and we do this better by filling in the gaps and making sense of the enactment by opening it up to destructive analysis”.

This attitude was criticized on appeal by the House of Lords. Lord Simmons called this approach “a naked usurpation of the legislative function under the thin disguise of interpretation”. He went on to say that if a gap is disclosed, the remedy lies in an amending Act.

These comments highlight one issue with the purposive approach. How Parliament’s intentions can be determined and whether judges should really be refusing to follow the clear words of Parliament. The purposive approach is one used by most continental European countries when interpreting their own legislation. It is also the approach that is taken by the European Court of Justice in interpreting EU law.

Since the United Kingdom became a member of the European Economic Community in 1973, the influence of the European preference for the purposive approach has affected the English courts in a number of ways. First, the courts have been required to accept that, from 1973, the purposive approach has to be used when deciding on EU matters. Second, as they use the purposive approach for EU law they are becoming accustomed to using it and more likely to use it to interpret domestic law. One example is Pickstone v Freemans plc (1998). Here, women warehouse operatives were paid the same as male warehouse operatives.
However, Miss Pickstone claimed that the work of the warehouse operatives was of equal value to that done by male warehouse checkers who were paid £1.22 per week more than they were. The employers argued that a woman warehouse operative was employed on like work to the male warehouse operatives, so she could not bring a claim under section 1(2) (c) of the 1970 statute for work of equal value. This was a literal interpretation of the 1970 statute. The House of Lords decided that the literal approach would have left the United Kingdom in breach of its treaty obligations to give effect to an EU directive. It, therefore, used the purposive approach and stated that Miss Pickstone was entitled to claim on the basis of work of equal value even though there was a male employee doing the same work as her.

Noscitur a Sociis
Noscere means to know and sociis means association. Thus, Noscitur a Sociis means knowing from the association. Thus, under the doctrine of “noscitur a sociis” the questionable meaning of a word or doubtful words can be derived from its association with other words within the context of the phrase. This means that words in a list within a statute have meanings that are related to each other. If multiple words having similar meanings are put together, they are to be understood in their collective meaning. According to Maxwell, “this rule means that when two or more words susceptible to analogous meaning are clubbed together, they are understood to be used in their cognate sense. They take as it were their colour from each other, i.e. the more general is restricted to a sense analogous to a less general”.

This doctrine is broader than the doctrine of ejusdem generis because this rule puts the words in the context of the whole phrase and not just in relation to the nearby words. The language of the phrase can be used as a guide to arrive at the true meaning of the word.  This rule is illustrated in Foster v Diphwys Casson (1887) 18 QBD 428, involving a statute that stated that explosives taken into a mine must be in a “case or canister”. Here the defendant used a cloth bag. The courts had to consider whether a cloth bag was within the definition. Under Noscitur a sociis, it was held that the bag could not have been within the statutory definition, because parliament’s intention was referring to a case or container of the same strength as a canister.

In State of  Assam vs R Muhammad AIR 1967, SC made use of this rule to arrive at the meaning of the word “posting” used in Article 233 (1) of the Constitution. It held that since the word “posting” occurs in association with the words “appointment” and “promotion”, it took its color from them and so it means “assignment of an appointee or a promotee to a position” and does not mean the transfer of a person from one station to another.

Noscitur a sociis is only a rule of construction and it cannot be used when it is clear that the word with wider meaning is deliberately used in order to increase the scope. It can only be used when the intention of the legislature in using a word with a wider sense along with the words with a narrower meaning is not clear. Further, this rule can only be used when the associated words have analogous meanings. It cannot be used when the words have disjoint meanings. For example, in the case of Lokmat Newspapers vs Shankarprasad AIR 1999, it was held that the words “discharge” and “dismissal” do not have the same analogous meaning and so this rule cannot be applied.

Ejusdem Generis
The ejusdem generis, or ‘of the same genus’ rule, is similar though narrower than the more general rule of noscitur a sociis. It operates where a broad or open-ended term appears following a series of more restrictive terms in the text of a statute. Where the terms listed are similar enough to constitute a class or genus, the courts will presume, in interpreting the general words that follow, that they are intended to apply only to things of the same genus as the particular items listed.
According to this rule, when particular words pertaining to a class or a genus are followed by general words, the general words are construed as limited to things of the same kind as those specified by the class or the genus.  The meaning of an expression with wider meaning is limited to the meaning of the preceding specific expressions. However, for this rule to apply, the preceding words must be for a specific class or genus. Further, this rule cannot be applied to the words with a wider meaning appearing before the words with specific or narrow meanings.  In UP State Electricity Board vs Harishankar, AIR 1979, SC held that the following conditions must exist for the application of this rule –

1.    The statue contains an enumeration of specific words
2.    The subject of the enumeration constitute a class or a category
3.    The class or category is not exhausted by the enumeration
4.    A general term is present at the end of the enumeration
5.    There is no indication of a different legislative intent

Justice Hidayatullah explained the principles of this rule through the following example – In the expression, “books, pamphlets, newspapers, and other documents”, private letters may not be held included if “other documents” be interpreted ejusdem generis with what goes before. But in a provision which reads, “newspapers or other documents likely to convey secrets to the enemy”, the words “other documents” would include documents of any kind and would not take their meaning from newspaper.
This was also illustrated in the case of Ishwar Singh Bagga vs State of Rajasthan 1987, where the words “other person”, in the expression “any police officer authorized in this behalf or any other person authorized in this behalf by the State government” in Section 129 of Motor Vehicles Act, were held not to be interpreted ejusdem generis because the mention of a single species of “police officers” does not constitute a genus.

It can be seen that this rule is an exception to the rule of construction that general words should be given their full and natural meaning. It is a canon of construction like many other rules that are used to understand the intention of the legislature.

This rule also covers The rank principle, which goes as follows – Where a string of items of a certain rank or level is followed by general residuary words, it is presumed that the residuary words are not intended to include items of a higher rank than those specified. By specifiying only items of lower rank the impression is created that higher ranks are not intened to be covered. If they were, then their mention would be expected a fortiori. For example, the phrase “tradesman, artificer, workman, labourer, or other person whatsoever” was held not to include persons above the artisan class. Similarly, the phrase “copper, brass, pewter, and tin, and all other metals” in a local Act of 1825 was held not to include precious metals such as gold and silver.

Reddendo Singula Singulis
The reddendo singula singulis principle concerns the use of words distributively. Where a complex sentence has more than one subject, and more than one object, it may be the right construction to render each to each, by reading the provision distributively and applying each object to its appropriate subject. A similar principle applies to verbs and their subjects, and to other parts of speech. A typical application of this principle is where a testator says ‘I devise and bequeath all my real and personal property to B’. The term devise is appropriate only to real property. The term bequeath is appropriate only to personal property. Accordingly, by the application of the principle reddendo singula singulis, the testamentary disposition is read as if it were worded ‘I devise all my real property, and bequeath all my personal property, to B’.

This rule has been applied in the case of Koteshwar Vittal Kamat vs K Rangappa Baliga, AIR 1969, in the construction of the Proviso to Article 304 of the Constitution which reads, “Provided that no bill or amendment for the purpose of clause (b), shall be introduced or moved in the legislature of a state without the previous sanction of the President”. It was held that the word introduced applies to bill and moved applies to amendment.

Keywords: Rules of Statutory Interpretation, Rules of Statutory Interpretation in India, Rules of Statutory Interpretation Definition, Concept of Rules of Statutory Interpretation, Literal Rule, Mischief Rule (aka Rule in Haydon’s case), Golden Rule, Rule of Harmonious Construction, Nosciur a sociis, Ejusdem generis, Reddendo singul singuis

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