Meaning, Purpose, and Scope of Interpretation of Statutes”6 min read


Introduction: Meaning of Statute and Interpretation

The term ‘statute’ has been derived from the old French word statute, a statute which means royal promulgation, (legal) statute, and from the Late Latin word statutum which means a law or decree and stature means to enact or establish. A statute is a formal written enactment of Legislative authority that governs a state, city, or country. Typically, statutes command or prohibit something, or declare policy; the word is often used to distinguish law made by legislative bodies from the judicial decisions of the common law and the regulations used by the government agencies”.

The term statue is not used in Indian Constitution but it uses law under Article 13 (3) (a).

Now, the term ‘interpretation’ has come from the Latin term interpretari which means to expound, explain, understand or translate. So, in layman language interpretation can be defined as a process that involves explaining, expounding, and translating any text or anything which is written to make it comprehensible or of understanding the true meaning of the words which have been used in the statute.

According to Salmond, interpretation or construction is “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”.  The statute is a decree of the legislature that must be understood as it reflects the intention of a legislature.  So, the true meaning should be conveyed which is sometimes hidden in the jargons used in it.  As enacted 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 the law has been different. But interpretation or construction differs in their meaning according to Cooley as he said “interpretation differs from construction in the sense that the former is the art of finding out the true sense that the former is the art of finding out the true sense of any form of words; i.e. the sense that their author intended to convey. Construction, on the other hand, is the drawing of conclusions, respecting the subjects that lie beyond the direct expression of the text. But the distinction made by Cooley has been widely criticized and they are different in various parameters.

Purpose of Interpreting the Statutes

There are various rules to interpret the statutes which can be called canons of interpretation of statutes as they need tone understood verbatim otherwise it can create a chaotic situation. Elaborate rules of interpretation were evolved even at a very early stage of Hindu civilization and culture. The rules are given by ‘jamini’, the author of Mimamsat Sutras, originally meant for srutis were employed for the interpretation of Smritis also. Some of the important rules of the interpretation are General Rules of Interpretation, Internal Aids to Interpretation, External Aids to Interpretation, Literal Rule, Golden Rule, Mischief Rule, Subsidiary Rules, and Harmonious Construction.

The purpose of interpreting the statutes can be understood under the following heads:

Usage of ambiguous words used in the statute:

Sometimes the purpose behind the usage of the words and actual meaning of the word differs and sometimes a single word has more than one meaning so they should be interpreted accordingly or in true sense so that actual purpose could be served as it can lead to multiple interpretations.

Intention behind Legislation

The intention behind legislation need to be taken into account and it covers two aspects which are as follows:

  • The concept of meaning i.e. the meaning of the word used.
  • The concept of ‘ purpose’ or ‘ object’ or ‘ reason’ or ‘spirit’ embedded in the statute.

Environmental Changes:

As society is dynamic in nature and day by day various new developments are happening in the society and they are not taken into consideration and due to this future event become unpredictable as by time use of some words has become redundant or they become obsolete or they cannot be treated in the way in which they were written.

Intricacies of Statutes:

Statutes are complex in nature and are huge and due to the usage of jargon, technical words they are incomprehensible for the common man, and this can lead to chaos and can create semantic barriers.

Less coverage of some specific areas by legislation:

When legislation comes into existence it is not possible to cover all the areas and due to this some grey areas are left in the legislation and they create a gap between the understanding and purpose of it. So, interpretation acts as a bridge between the two.

Errors in drafting:

There is a possibility that the draft has been drafted without sufficient knowledge of the subject or maybe sometimes there are typing errors, lack of usage of necessary words, and of correct grammar, so, it may create ambiguity in the legislature and can make the draft unable to understand.

Incompletion of Rules

A statute contains implied and expressed rules and regulations and the rules and regulations which are implied may have different meanings and sometimes they are not mentioned or defined in the statute but they need to be understood to remove ambiguity.

Scope and Nature of Interpretation

Blackstone stated that the fairest and rational method for interpreting a statute is by exploring the intention of the legislature through the most natural and probable signs which are ‘either the words, the context, the subject matter, the effects and consequence, or the spirit and the reason of the law.

The need for interpretation will be there when ambiguity is caused due to language of the statute, or the meaning of the statute has become multifaceted and the primary object and meaning of the language used in the statute are not in consonance with each other but interpretation is not needed in the opposite situation.

As in R.S. Nayak v. A.R Antulay, the Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court consisting of five judges held that if the words or language of the statute are clear and also unambiguous then the court is dutiful to give effect to the natural meaning of the words used in the provision. The need for construction will be there only in case of ambiguity or the plain meaning of the words of the statute is self- defeating.

This principle was again followed by the Supreme Court in the case of Grasim Industries Ltd. v. Collector of Customs, Bombay and held “Where the words are clear and there is no obscurity, and there is no ambiguity and the intention of the legislature is clearly conveyed, there is no scope for the court to take upon itself the task of amending or altering the statutory provisions”.

The purpose behind the interpretation of statutes is ascertain the latent meaning embedded in the statute and the intention of the enacted legislation but not to confine or control the intention within the limits otherwise it will be the arbitrary use of power by the judge.

The correct is one that best harmonizes the words with the object of the statute. In-State of Punjab v. Qaisar Jehan Begum Iyer J. observed that “to be literal in meaning is to see the skin and miss the soul. The judicial key of construction is the composite perception of the deha and the dehi of the provision.”

So, interpretation plays a vital role in removing ambiguity, semantic barriers, and the various hurdles which arise due to technical use of language, various jargon, etc. but it cannot be used arbitrarily by the judges as such practice will be against the constitutional practice.