CHANGING TRENDS IN RULES OF CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION
“Words are like eyeglasses, they blur everything, which they do not make more clear.” Joseph Joubert
Interpretation is the art or process of discovering and expounding the intended signification of
the language used in a statute, will, contract, or any other written document, that is, the meaning which the author designed it to convey to others.
A statute is a will of legislature conveyed in the form of text. The original authority to make the
laws lies within the hands of the legislature. Therefore, the legislature is the highest competent
authority to make the laws. The laws are the strict rules and the guidelines made by the highest
authority for anyone and everyone with the subordinate authority. Laws will be followed and
obeyed to the best of its capacity if they are understood and interpreted in the right sense.
Interpretation or construction of a statute is an age-old process and as old as language. It is well
settled principle of law that as the statute is an edict of the Legislature, the conventional way of
interpreting or construing a statute is to seek the intention of legislature. The intention of
legislature assimilates two aspects; one aspect carries the concept of, meaning, i.e., what the
word means and another aspect conveys the concept of purpose and, objector the, reason or,
spirit pervading through the statute. The process of construction, therefore, combines both the
literal and purposive approaches. However, necessity of interpretation would arise only where
the language of a statutory provision is ambiguous, not clear or where two views are possible or
where the provision gives a different meaning defeating the object of the statute.
According to Blackstone 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 reason of the
Cooley states that ‘Interpretation’ is an art of finding out the true sense of any form of words,
i.e., the sense which their author intended to convey and of enabling others to derive from them
the same idea which the author intended to convey.
Judiciary as the interpreter of the law
The interpretation of a statute can be done through judicial Interpretation. Judicial interpretation
refers to different ways that the judiciary uses to interpret the law, particularly constitutional
documents and legislation. This is an important issue in some common law jurisdictions such as
the United States, Australia and Canada, because the supreme courts of those nations can
overturn laws made by their legislatures via a process called judicial review.
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
Sir Edward Coke wrote in 1584, “The office of all judges is always to make such construction as
shall suppress the mischief, advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle invention and evasions
for Continuance of the mischief … according to the true intent of the makers of the act”
(Heydon’s Case, 3 Co. Rep. 7a, 76 Eng. Rep. 637 [King’s Bench 1584]).
In R v Daoust 2004 SCC 6, Canada’s Supreme Court stated that:
“Then oscitur a sociis rule … the meaning of a term may be revealed by its association with other
terms where the latter may not be read in isolation.” “The noscitur a sociis rule … allows us to
determine the meaning of a term through its relation to other terms. However, this principle is
normally applied when interpreting terms in an enumeration.”
Canons of Construction, the system of basic rules and maxims applied by a court to aid in its
interpretation of a written document, such as a statute or contract has been expounded. When
considering a statute, a court will apply rules of construction only when the language contained
in the statute is ambiguous. Courts have generally held that a statute is ambiguous when
reasonably well-informed persons could understand the language in either of two or more senses
(State ex rel. Neelen v. Lucas, 24 Wis. 2d 262, 128 N.W.2d 425 ).If a statute is found to
be ambiguous, the court then applies a variety of canons, or rules, to help it determine the
meaning of the statute. Issues of statutory construction are generally decided by the judge and
not by the jury. In interpreting statutes, a judge tries to ascertain the intent of the legislature in
enacting the law. By looking to legislative intent, the court attempts to carry out the will of the
law-making branch of the government.
To assist the courts in interpreting legislation, judges relied upon the literal rule; dictated that the
courts gave effect to the “ordinary and natural meaning” of legislation. This Rule was defined by
Higgins J, in The Amalgamated Society of Engineers v The Adelaide Steamship Co Ltd
Justice Higgins said “The fundamental rule of interpretation, to which all others are subordinate,
is that a statute is to be expounded according to the intent of the Parliament that made it; and that
intention has to be found by an examination of the language used in the whole of the statute as a
whole. The question is, what does the language mean; and when we find what the language
means in its ordinary and natural sense, it is our duty to obey that meaning, even if we think the
result to be inconvenient, impolitic or improbable”.
Purposive interpretation rule/ theory
Purposive theory is a theory of statutory interpretation that holds that the Courts should interpret
legislation in light of the purpose behind the legislation. According to this theory Courts are not
The position succinctly:
want to bound by the text. It is a pragmatic approach or rather a functional aspect of interpreting
law, wherein deviation from literal rule is permitted for the larger interest of the society.
Maxwellon Interpretation of Statutes (12th Edn., page 228), under the caption’ modification of
the language to meet the intention in the chapter dealing with ‘Exceptional Construction’ states
Where the language of a statute, in its ordinary meaning and grammatical construction, leads to a
manifest contradiction of the apparent purpose of the enactment, or to some inconvenience or
absurdity, hardship or injustice, which can hardly have been intended, a construction may be put
upon it which modifies the meaning of the words, and even the structure of the sentence. This
may be done by departing from the rules of grammar, by giving an unusual meaning to particular
words, or by rejecting them altogether, on the ground that the legislature could not possibly have
intended what its words signify, and that the modifications made are mere corrections of careless
language and really give the true meaning. Where the main object and intention of a statute are
clear, it must not be reduced to a nullity by the draftsman’s unskilfulness or ignorance of the law,
except in a case of necessity, or the absolute intractability of the language used.
General Rules of Interpretation, Internal Aids to Interpretation, External Aids to Interpretation,
Golden Rule, Mischief Rule, Subsidiary Rules and Harmonious Construction are some of the
most important rules.
Constitution of India
The constitution of India is the supremist authority of law in India. It embodies rights, powers
procedures, principles and duties of the government and of the people. As stated by the
Preamble, the constitution of India is of the people by the people and for the people.
The constitution of India follows the theory of Separation of Power between the three organs
namely; The Legislature, The Executive and The Judiciary.
In his book The Spirit of The Laws’ (1748), Montesquieu enunciated and explained his theory of
Separation of Powers. Montesquieu led the power to be expressed in three organs of the State,
namely, legislature, executive and the judiciary. The duty of the legislature is to legislate. i.e., to
make laws for anyone and everyone under the jurisdiction of India. Judiciary is concerned with
application of these laws through real cases, while the executive enforces these rules in the
In countries like India, the judiciary has been given great importance. The main role of the
judiciary is to interpret the provisions of the constitution for the better understanding and
evaluation of the statutes placed. Consensus ad idem of the judiciary and the constitutional
makers is an important factor for a synchronized and successful evaluation of the interpretation
of the laws.
General rules of interpretation of the Constitution-
1.If the words are clear and unambiguous, they must be given full effect.
2.The constitution must be read as a whole.
3.Principles of Harmonious construction must be applied.
4.The constitution must be interpreted in a broad and liberal sense.
5.The court has to infer the spirit of the constitution from the language.
6.Internal and External aids may be used while interpreting.
The Constitution prevails over other statutes
Interpretation thus, is a familiar process of considerable significance. In relation to statute la
interpretation is of importance because of the inherent nature of legislation as a source of law.
The process of statute making and the process of interpretation of statutes take place separately
from each other, and two different agencies are concerned. An interpretation Act serves as the
bridge of understanding between the two.
There is always something which is behind the linguistic form, and which goes deeper: and it is
the function of interpretation to see that this is made explicit. In this process (which is a process
of finding out), we come to grips with the subject in all its wealth of inter-relationships, and with
particular aspects which, perhaps, we never suspected to exist, though they are closely bound up
with the ideas.
While interpreting the law, a degree of elasticity bestowed within the hands of the judiciary is
also important. This is so because the aims and ideas of the legislation will be better achieved by
the judicial interpretation keeping in mind the ever-changing behaviour of the society, rather than
by just sticking to the rigid provision of the law. The judges in this sense, can examine and
understand the law in a better way and help in increasing the density of justice.
Constitutional interpretation done through judiciary, have been reflected through
landmark case laws:
A Constitution Bench of five Judges of the Supreme Court in R.S. Nayak v A.R. Antulay AIR
684, 1984 SCR (2) 495, it was held that-
“… If the words of the Statute are clear and unambiguous, it is the plainest duty of the Court to
give effect to the natural meaning of the words used in the provision. The question of
construction arises only in the event of an ambiguity or the plain meaning of the words used in
the Statute would be self-defeating.”
The purpose of Interpretation of Statutes is to help the Judge to ascertain the intention of the
Legislature– Not to control that intention or to confine it within the limits, which the Judge may
deem reasonable or expedient.
In Jugalkishore Saraf vs. Raw Cotton Co. Ltd AIR 376, 1955 SCR (1)1369. it was observed-
“The cardinal rules of construction of statutes is to read the statutes literally, that is by giving to
the words their ordinary, natural and grammatical meaning. If, however, such reading leads to
absurdity and the words are susceptible of author meaning, the court may adopt the same. But if
no such alternative construction is possible the court must adopt the ordinary rule of literal In
determining the meaning of any word or ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in a statute, the
first question to be asked is – “What is the natural or ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in
its context in the statute? It is only when that meaning leads to some result which cannot
reasonably be supposed to have been the intention of the Legislature, that it is proper to look for
some other possible meaning of the word or phrase”. The context, as already seen, in the
construction of statutes, means 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 that it was intended to.
In Keshav Mills Co. Ltd. v. CIT AIR 1965 SC 1636, p. 1644, in this case-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.
In Santi Swarup Sarkar v Pradeep Kumar Sarkar AIR 1997 Cal 197, the Supreme Court held
If two interpretations are possible of the same statute, the one which validates the statute must be
preferred. Interpretation is the primary function of the court. The court interprets the legislature
whenever a dispute arises before the court. Since the will of the legislature is generally expressed
in the form of statutes, the prime concern of the court is to find out the intentions of the
legislature in the language used by the legislature in the statute.
Municipal Corpn of Delhi v. Laxmi Narain Tandon AIR 621, 1976 SCR (2)1050, in this case-
The definition of ‘sale’ in the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 was construed in the
sense having regard to the mischief intended to be remedied. It was held that the ‘sale’ in the Act
would include all commercial transactions where under an adulterated article of food was
supplied for consumption by one person to another person. Therefore, supply or offer of food to
hotelier to a customer when consolidated charge was made for residence and other amenities
including food fell within the definition.
In Manmohan Das Shah v. Bishun Das AIR 643, 1967 SCR (1) 836, the Supreme Court held
“The ordinary rule of construction is that a provision of a Statute must be construed in
accordance with the language used therein unless there are compelling reasons. Such as, where a
literal construction would reduce the provision to absurdity or prevent the manifest intention of
the legislature from being carried out. There is no reason why the word “or” should be construed
otherwise than in its ordinary meaning. If the construction suggested by Mr. Desai were to be
accepted and the word “or” were to be construed as meaning “and”, it would mean that the
construction should not only be such as materially alters the accommodation but is also such that
it would substantially diminish its value. ………..”
In a latest case of 2011, Union of India v. Ind-Swift Laboratories Ltd. the Apex Court-
Has once again laid emphasis on the need to interpret “and” and “or” in a manner that ensure
the manifest intent of the Legislature is giving effect to.
“Interpretation postulates the search for the true meaning of the words used in the statute as a
medium of expression to communicate a particular thought. The task is not easy as the
“language” is often misunderstood even in ordinary conversation or correspondence. The tragedy
is that although in the matter of correspondence or conversation the person who has spoken the
words or used the language can be approached for clarification, the Legislature cannot be
approached as the Legislature, after enacting a law or Act, becomes functus officio so far as that
particular Act is concerned and it cannot itself interpret it. No doubt, the Legislature retains the
power to amend or repeal the law so made and can also declare its meaning, but that can be done
only by making another law or statute after undertaking the whole process of law-making.”
“It endangers continued public confidence in the political impartiality of the judiciary, which is
essential to the continuance of the rule of law, if Judges, under the guise of interpretation,
provide their own preferred amendments to statutes which experience of their operation has
shown to have had consequences that members of the Court before whom the matter comes
consider to be injurious to public interest.”
Therefore, the Courts are required to assign meanings to all the words and phrases used in a
statute in accordance with the intention of the legislature or in other words to interpret the
A Judge must be a jurist endowed with the legislator’s wisdom, historian’s search for truth,
prophet’s vision, capacity to respond to the needs of the present, resilience to cope with the
demands of the future and to decide objectively disengaging himself/herself from every personal
influence or predilections. Therefore, the judges should adopt purposive interpretation of the
dynamic concepts of the Constitution and the Act with its interpretative armoury to articulate the
felt necessities of the time.