Primary Rule of Interpretation of statutes- Mischief Rule (Rule in the Heydon’s case) & Purposive Rule6 min read


‘Interpretation, and its significance.’

The term ‘Interpretation’ comes from the Latin term ‘interpretari’ which implies, to elucidate, or explain or to translate or understand. It a process of arriving at the conclusion of a law made by the law-making bodies and understanding the true objective behind that law which is laid out in statutes.

Legal interpretation is the process by which courts interpret and apply the law. Often a certain amount of interpretation is required when dealing with a case concerning a particular stature. Sometimes the words of law have a simple and straightforward meaning. However, in many cases, there is some ambiguity. Such ambiguity in the words of a statute is meant to be resolved by the judges. In order to discover the meaning of the statutes, judges use various instruments and methods of legal interpretation, including traditional cannon of legal interpretation, legislative history, and purpose. The judiciary can apply rules of interpretation to both legislative legislation and delegated legislation such as administrative authority rules.

There is a need for interpretation and specific rules, as:

  1. There is always some ambiguity around the words used in different statutes which have more than one meaning. Such words make it difficult to conclude as to which meaning must be followed, hence they lead to multiple interpretations of a single word.
  2. Typically statutes are complicated and huge, and they consist of complex words, jargon and a few technical phrases which aren’t clean to apprehend and this complexity might also additionally result in confusion.
  3. Sometimes when legislations are enacted, they fail to cover some areas of law and leave certain gaps. That is when interpretations come to the rescue and are required to fill the gaps in between, for a better understanding.
  4. Certain implied rules and regulations are often omitted while drafting a statute and thus lead to ambiguity while interpreting a particular law.
  5. Society keeps on evolving along with new developments. With the evolving society, the laws too need to evolve to cater to the need of the hour. That is when the art of interpretation helps while applying an age old principle interpreted in a way which resonates with the contemporary need of the society.

Legal interpretation first became significant in common law systems, of which England is an example from history. In Civil and Roman law, a law (or code) guides the judge, but there is no precedent for the judiciary. In England, the Parliament had failed in enacting a comprehensive legislative code, and that is why it became the responsibility of the courts to develop the common law. Therefore, after a case had been resolved and the reasons for the decision had been given, the decision was being binding on the subsequent courts. As a result, a certain interpretation of a statute would also be binding and it became necessary to introduce a coherent framework for legal interpretation. In framing (interpreting) the statutes, the main aim of the court must be to implement the “intention of parliament”. In order to do the same, two rules of statutory interpretation, namely, the Mischief Rule (Rule in the Heydon’s case) & Purposive Rule, are significant.

Mischief Rule (Rule in the Heydon’s case)

The Mischief Rule is a type of legal interpretation that seeks to determine the intent of the legislature. It essentially dates back to the 16th century due to Heydon’s case in the United Kingdom. The main aim is to discover the mischief and flaw of the earlier problem in question and how the new law suggests the means by which the flaw will be remedied.

The main purpose of amending the statute is to add additional areas or make certain changes to the existing law and expand it if it covers many other circumstances. Legislation of a new law aims to solve the problem that could not be solved by means of the other laws that existed before, and this also helps to find the answers to those questions that were not answered in the previous law, so that here we can see the ex post facto effect in the legislation. The following four principles were set out in Heydon’s Case (1584), which involved a dispute over a lawsuit against Heydon for invading certain countries: What was the common law before the law was promulgated? What was the harm and defect that common law had not foreseen? What means has Parliament decided and appointed to cure Commonwealth Disease?

Heydon’s Case is a landmark case where the Mischief Rule was applied for the first time. Ottery College, a religious college, rented a man (referred to simply as “Ware” in the case report) and his son, also known as Ware, in a mansion called “Ottery”. Ware and his son retained their intellectual property for life, subject to the will of the Lord and the custom of the manor. The intellectual property of the goods as part of a package that some tenants also lived in at will. Afterward, the college gave on lease the same package to another man, Heydon for eighty years in exchange for rents amounting to the traditional rent for the package’s components. Less than a year after leasing the package to Heydon, Parliament passed the Religious Homes Abolition Act of 1535 (Dissolution Act). The law resulted in the dissolution of many religious universities, including Ottery College, which lost its land and income to Henry VIII. However, a provision of the law kept all grants in effect for a period of time that had been granted more than a year before the law came into force.

The following principles were set out in Heydon’s Case (1584), which involved a dispute over a lawsuit against Heydon for invading certain countries: What was the common law before the law was promulgated? What was the harm and defect that common law had not foreseen? And, what means has Parliament decided and appointed to cure Commonwealth Disease?

Ultimately, the tax court found that the Wares concession was protected by the relevant provision of the Dissolution Act, but Heydon’s lease was void.

Purposive Rule

The ‘PurposiveRule’, sometimes known as the ‘purposive construction’, ‘purposive interpretation’, or the “modern principle of construction”, is an approach to legal and constitutional interpretation by which the common law courts interpret an enactment in the light of the objective for which it was promulgated. The historical source of the purposive rule is the mischief rule that was followed in Heydon’s case. The Purposive interpretation was introduced to replace the mischief rule. The purposive interpretation is used when courts use materials outside of the pre-legislative phase, including early drafts, reports from committees, etc. Purposive interpretation includes a rejection of the exclusion rule. Critics have argued that this rule has failed to recognize the separation of powers between the legislature and the judiciary. The legislature is responsible for making the law, while the judiciary is responsible for interpreting it. Since purposive interpretation is beyond the words in the statute, a good amount of power is vested in the judges to go for external material to interpret the law.

Internal aids include context, Long title, preamble, short title, punctuation, proviso, title,  conjunctive and disjunctive words, and, definition/interpretation clause. Whereas, external aids consist, judicial interpretation of words, historical settings, textbooks and dictionaries, government publications, committee report, history of legislation, extemporaneous exposition, international convention, debate and proceedings of the legislature, objects and reason, bills, and state of things at the time of passing the bill.

Consequently, the aforementioned rules have been a significant tool for the judges for interpretation and set the rule of law to be generally followed.

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