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Interpretation of statutes: A complete study to an aids to interpretation

1. What is interpretation of statutes?

Interpretation is the process which is employed by the judiciary to ascertain or to determine the meaning of the statutes or legal provision. It is basically a process by which court seeks to ascertain the true meaning of the expression or word or phrase which is in question in any statute before the court and determine the true intention of the legislature behind such statutory provision.

A process of interpretation employed by the judiciary can be done through various tools or principles of statutory interpretation which include seeking help from internal or external aids to interpretation and applying primary or secondary rule of interpretation which has evolved over a period of time by the court.

According to Salmond:
Interpretation and construction is the process by which the court seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it is expressed.[1]

According to Blackstone:
The most fair and rational method for interpreting a statute is by exploring the intention of the legislature through texts, the subject matter, the effect and consequences or the spirit and reason of law.[2]

2. What is construction of statutes?

Construction, in strict sense, is the process by which the court assign the meaning to the ambiguous provision which is beyond the letter of law for the purpose to resolve the inconsistency. The judges after taking into consideration the factual circumstances before the court give a particular meaning to the expression or word or phrase in question. Although, such meaning must be within the ambit of the objective of statute and could not be directly explained by the statute.
The word interpretation and construction are used interchangeably but there is thin line of difference between both the concepts.

According to Cooley, �Interpretation is the art of finding out the true sense of any form of words and enabling others to drive from them the same meaning which the author intended to convey, whereas, construction is the process of drawing conclusions, respecting subjects that lie beyond the direct expression of the text, which are in the spirit though not within the letter of law.[3]
Basically, interpretation is a process of discovering, from permissible data, the meaning and intension of the legislature and if interpretation discloses clear meaning and intention of the legislature it will be directly applied to factual circumstances but if interpretation doesn't disclose clearly the meaning in context of factual circumstances, then construction will undergoes to seek to assign meaning or intention to the words used by the legislature.[4] It is clearly drawn that construction is more concerned with applying the meaning to the factual circumstances than mere ascertaining the meaning of the words of provision.

Tabular difference between interpretation and construction
Interpretation Construction
1 It is the process adopted by the court to determine the true meaning of the legislative provision. It is the process by which court assign the meaning to the ambiguous provision which is beyond the letter of law for the purpose to resolve the inconsistency.
2 By interpretation one can find out the true sense of any form of words in statue.� By construction one can find out the way to apply the meaning to the factual circumstances before court.
3 Interpretation enables the linguistic meaning of the legal text. Construction is more concerned in enabling conclusion to the situation.

3. Aids to interpretation of statutes

An Aid is considered as a tool or device which helps in interpreting a statute, the court can take help from internal aids to interpretation (i.e. within statutes) or external aids to interpretation (i.e. outside the statutes)

A. Internal aids to interpretation

Internal aids means those aids which are available in the statute itself, court can interpret the statute by employing such aids which are as follows:
  1. Title of the statute
    There are basically two types of title-
    I. Short Title

    The short title of the Act is only its name which is given solely for the purpose of reference and identification.
    Short title is mention under Section 1 of the Acts and ends with the year of passing of the Act.

    Example- Section 1 of CPC says, This Act may be cited as Code of Civil Procedure, 1908.' Section 1 of Indian contract Acts says, This Act may be called as Indian Contract Act, 1872.

    II. Long Title
    The long title is mention under certain acts whose purpose is to give a general description about the object of the act.
    However, it is not considered as a conclusive aid to interpretation of statutes as it doesn't resolve ambiguity arising in words or expression under statutory provision but only provide a general idea of the act.

    Example- The long title of CrPC says, An act to consolidate and amend the laws relating to the criminal procedure. Also, the long title of CPC says, �An act to consolidate and amend the laws relating to the procedure of the courts of civil judicature.
  2. Preamble
    Preamble is a tool for internal aid to interpretation as it contains the main objects and reasons of the Act.
    The rule of interpretation of preamble is that when a language of an enactment is clear and unambiguous, the preamble has no part to play but if more than one interpretation is possible, a help can be taken from preamble to ascertain the true meaning of the provision.
    The preamble is mention on the very first page of the act but modern acts doesn't pass with preamble which is declining its importance.

    State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali [5], the constitutionality of Section 5 of the West Bengal special courts act, 1950 was challenged on the grounds of violative of Article 14 of the constitution as the provision in the act authorize state government to select a particular case which deserved to be tried by special courts having special procedure. The Supreme Court take help of the preamble of the said Act and held that state government has discretion to choose such cases.
  3. Marginal notes
    Marginal notes are inserted at the side of the sections in an act which express the effect of the section but they are not part of statute.
    They are also known as Side notes and are inserted by drafters and not legislators.

    The rule of interpretation is that in olden times a help is used to be taken from marginal notes when the clear meaning of the provision is in doubt but as per modern view of the court, marginal notes doesn't have any role to play because either they are inserted by legislators nor does they form the part of the statute.
    However, for interpreting constitution many times marginal notes are referred because they are made by constituent assembly.

    Bengal Immunity Company v. State of Bihar [6], the Supreme Court held that the marginal notes of Article 286 is the part of the Constitution of India which talks about Restrictions as to imposition of the tax on the sale or purchase of goods therefore, it could be relied on to furnish a clue to the purpose and meaning of the article.
  4. Headings
    Headings are prefixed to sections or a group or set of sections.
    These headings have been treated by courts as preambles to those sections or sets of sections.
    The rule of interpretation is that the heading can't control the plain words of the provision but if after the plain reading of the section more than one meaning is possible, only then the court may seek guidance from the headings.

    Tolley v. Giddings [7], interpretation of section 217 of Road Traffic Act was in question which provides that a person could be held liable of an offence if he allowed himself to be driven away in a motor vehicle without the consent of its master. The heading of the provision is Miscellaneous and general' and sub heading is Penalization of taking motor vehicle without authority'. The court held that headings to the section clearly explain the intention of the legislature and thus the passenger would be held liable of an offence.
  5. Illustration
    Illustration are appended to a section of a statute with a view to illustrating the law explained in the provision.
    Such illustration manifest the intention of the legislature and can be referred in the case of ambiguity or repugnancy.
    However, the court emphasis through various judgments that it doesn't explain the whole principle explain in the section through illustration nor does it curtail the ambit of the section.
    In the case of repugnancy between section and illustration, section will prevail.

    Example- Section 378 of theft in IPC has 16 illustrations attached to it.
  6. Explanation
    The explanations are inserted with the purpose of explaining the meaning of a particular provision and to remove doubts which might creep up if the explanation had not been inserted.
    The purpose of explanations are to explain the meaning and intention of act, to clarify in case of obscurity or vagueness and to provide additional support to the object of the act.
    However, it doesn't expand or curtail the meaning of the provision but only tries to remove uncertainty and in the case of conflict between explanation and main section, the duty of the court is to harmonize the two.

    Example- section 108 of IPC defines the word abettor' which has five explanation attach to it.
  7. Definition or Interpretation clause
    It define certain words used elsewhere in the body of statute with the purpose to avoid the necessity of frequent repetitions in describing the subject matter and extend the natural meaning of some words as per the statute. It also define intention of the legislature in respect of words mention in statute and avoid confusion.

    The rule of interpretation is that whenever the words means or means and include' are used in definition, it makes the definition exhaustive and don't allow to interpret the definition widely but if the word includes' is used in the definition it provide widest interpretation possible to the definition or enlarge the ordinary meaning of the word.

    However, if the definition clause will result in an absurdity, the court will not apply such definitions and the definition clause of one act can't be used to explain same word used in another statute except in the case of statutes in pari materia.

    Mahalaxmi Oils Mils v. State of A.P [8], interpretation of word tobacco was in question which said tobacco means any form of tobacco whether cured or uncured or manufactured or not and includes leaf stalks and steams of tobacco plant. The SC held that the definition is exhaustive and refused to include tobacco seeds under the definition of tobacco.
  8. Punctuation
    Punctuation are put in the form of colon, semi colon, comma, full stop, dash, hyphen, brackets etc
    In earlier times statutes are passed without punctuations and therefore, the courts were not concerned with looking at punctuations but in modern times statutes are passed with punctuations.

    The rule of interpretation is that while interpreting the provision in punctuated form, if court feels repugnancy or ambiguity the court shall read the whole provision without any punctuation and if the meaning is clear will so interpret it without attaching any importance.
  9. Schedules
    Schedule are the part of statutes which are mentioned at the end of the act.
    It contains details prescribe form of working out policies and contains subjects in the form of lists.
    In the case of clash between schedule and the main body of an act, the main body shall prevail.

    Example- Article 1 of the constitution provides that India shall be union of states and in schedule 1 name of the states with its territories are mention.
  10. Saving Clause
    Saving Clause are generally appended in cases of repeal and reenactment of a new statute. It is inserted in the repealing statute.
    By this the rights already created under repealed enactment are not disturbed nor are new rights created by it.
    In the case of clash between the main part of statute and a saving clause, the saving clause has to be rejected.
  11. Proviso
    The proviso to a section has the natural presumption that enacting part of the section would have included the subject matter of the proviso.
    The proviso serve four different purposes- qualify or exempt certain provision, provide mandatory condition to be fulfilled by to make enactment workable, act as optional addenda and become integral part of the enactment.

    The rule of interpretation of proviso is that it can neither nullify the implication of main enactment nor can enlarge the scope of main enactment and can only be referred in case of ambiguity in the section.

    In case of conflict between main enactment and proviso, it must be harmoniously construct or in the view of many jurist proviso will prevail as it is the last intention of the legislature.

    Example- Article 16(4) is considered as proviso of Article 16(1) held in T. Devadasan v. Union of India [9].
  12. Exception
    Exception are generally added to an enactment with the purpose of exempting something which would otherwise fall within the ambit of the main provision.
    In case of repugnancy between exception and main enactment, the latter must be relied upon. However, in many cases exceptions are relied being the last intention of legislature.

    Example: Section 300 of IPC has five exceptions attached to it.

Difference between proviso and exceptions

Proviso has a wider function than exception as, an exception only exempt certain things to fall in the main enactment whereas, proviso not only exempt certain cases but also provide a mandatory condition, qualification or an optional addenda to the enactment.
Proviso follows the main enactment whereas exception is the part of main enactment.

B. External aids to interpretation

External aids are the aids which are not available inside the statute but outside the statute, the court may seek help to the external aids in case of repugnancy or inconsistency in the statutory provision which are as follows:
  1. Dictionaries
    When a word used in the statute is not defined therein or if defined but the meaning is unclear only in such situation, the court may refer to the dictionary meaning of the statute to find out meaning of the word in ordinary sense.

    The meaning of such words shall be interpreted so to make sure that it is speaking about the particular statute because words bears different meaning in different context.
    Motipur zamindary company private limited v. State of Bihar [10], the question was whether sales tax can be levied on Sugarcane.

    The applicant argued that it is green vegetable and should be exempted from tax. The dictionary meaning of vegetable said anything which derived or obtained from the plants. The SC rejected dictionary meaning and held that in common parlance vegetable is something which is grown in kitchen garden and used during lunch and dinner and held that sugarcane is not vegetable.
  2. Text Books
    The court while construing an enactment, may refer to the standard textbooks to clear the meaning. Although, the courts are not bound to accept such view.
    The court time and again referred to mulla, kautiliya, manu, arthshastra.

    Example: in Kesavananda Bharthi case [11], judges quoted large number of books.
  3. Statement of objects and reasons
    The statement of object and reasons are attached to the bill which describe the objects, purpose and the reason for the bill. It also gives understanding of the background, the antecedent state of affairs and the object the law seeks to achieve.

    The parliament before passing a bill must take into consideration that what object a bill serve to achieve.
    However, it is not considered as conclusive aid to interpretation because doesn't impart the true meaning to the statutory provision.
  4. Constituent Debates/Speech
    It shall compromises all such debate which had taken place in the parliament at the time of formation of Constitution of India.
    In case of inconsistency or repugnancy in the Constitution the court can clearly refer to such debates.

    Indra Sawhney v. Union of India [12], the interpretation of the expression backward class of citizen' used in Article 16(4) was in question before the court. The SC under this case referred to the speech given by B.R. Ambedkar to understand the context, background and object behind its use of the given expression.
  5. Legislative Debates/Speech
    It is referred as to debates or speeches which are made in the course of passing a bill in the parliament by the parliamentarians to put forth their view.
    It is not considered as a conclusive aid to interpretation and is therefore, not admissible because many times speeches are influenced by the political pressure or maybe incorrect to rely upon.
  6. Committee Reports
    Before the framing of the Bill, usually the matter is referred to a committee to consider it in detail and give its report thereon.
    These reports of the commissions and committee have been referred to as evidence of historical facts or of surrounding circumstances and used for interpreting the Act.
    When there is an ambiguity in the meaning of a provision and the act was passed on the recommendation of a committee report, aid can be taken from that report to interpret the provision.
    Example: the criminal amendment act was based on the recommendation by J.S. Verma Committee Report such report can be referred in case of any ambiguity in amendment.
  7. Foreign laws and decisions
    Judges may refer to foreign laws and decision if the jurisprudence of both the countries is same, similarity in political system and ideology, when there is no domestic law on point and if the Indian court believe that decision passed by the foreign court is not arbitrary.
    However, the foreign courts or decision have only persuasive value as the courts in India are not bound by the foreign courts.
Example: in Right to Privacy case, judges refer to foreign judgements.

End Notes:
  1. Salmond, Jurisprudence, 11th Edition, p.152.
  2. Blackstone, Commentaries on the laws of England, vol.1, p.59.
  3. Cooley, Constitutional Limitation, vol.1, p.97.
  4. Distinction between construction and interpretation of wills, Washington and lee law review, vol.20, Issue1, p.104.
  5. AIR 1952 SC 75.
  6. AIR 1955 SC 661.
  7. (1964) 2 QB 354.
  8. AIR 1985 SC 335
  9. AIR 1964 SC 179
  10. AIR 1962 SC 660
  11. AIR 1973 SC 1461
  12. AIR 1993 SC 477

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