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Critical Analysis of the Golden Rule of Interpretation

In case of any ambiguity, the court interprets the law. The word interpretation means a simple explanation and understanding of a statute. Interpretation is the essential function of the court. To give a certain meaning to the statute, the court has to follow certain rules of interpretation as a literal rule, the golden rule, harmonious construction, and the mischief rule.

The golden rule or British rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning. It is the addition and subtraction in the meaning of the statute. It usually avoids unjust or absurd results in sentencing. This rule allows the court to alter the structure of sentences and give unusual meaning to particular words.

Maxwell stated:
the golden rule means the words of a statute which gives prima facie their ordinary meaning.

In the case of Grey V. Pearson, the golden rule was inserted for the first time by Lord Wensleydale in the year 1857. Therefore this rule is also termed as Wensleydale's golden rule. The court sticks to the ordinary meaning and grammatical construction of the words. If the word of a statute is not clear then it can be interpreted by the judge.

At first, we shall go for the literal rule of interpretation if there is any ambiguity, hardship, injustice, inequality, difficulties, or inconvenience then the golden rule is applied. The golden rule is an enhancement given to the literal rule to avoid absurdity. The court applies the literal rule if it fails to make sense then the golden rule will be applied.

This rule has two approaches:
  1. Narrow approach
    It is applied when the word or phrase is capable of more than one literal meaning. This allows the judge to apply the meaning that avoids any kind of absurdity. In the case of R V. Allen (1872) and Alder V. George (1964) narrow approach was used.
  2. Broad approach
    The broad approach is applied when there is only one literal meaning but applying it would cause absurdity. In this, the court will modify the meaning to avoid absurdity. It was used in the case of In re Sigsworth (1935).

Merits And Demerits Of Golden Rule Of Interpretation

  1. Court has given the power to avoid absurdity.
  2. It aims to avoid speedy amending legislation in parliament.
  3. Closing loopholes
  4. It respects parliamentary supremacy and constitutional doctrines of separation of powers.
  5. It provides a check on the strictness of the literal rule.

  1. Judges can amend a statute to supersede the reading.
  2. It is unpredictable and lacks guidelines as to when and where the golden rule is to be used.
  3. Judges cannot unmake old law, cannot even change existing law.
  4. Judge has the power in case of ambiguity.

Case Analysis
Grey V. Pearson (1857) 6 HL Cas 61
In this case, Lord Wensleydale defined the golden rule as:
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 to avoid the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.

Nokes V. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Limited (1940) AC 1014
Justice Viscount Simon stated that:
golden rule should be given grammatical and ordinary meaning, but it may be modified to avoid any absurdity.
The focus was given to the word transfer under Section 154 of the Companies Act, 1929. In the literal rule of interpretation, there is no option of modification.

River Wear Commissioners V. Adamsons (1876-77) App Cas 743
Lord Blackburn stated, a court should always give meaning in a way so that ordinary significance of a term should come out.

Warburton V. Loveland (1832) 2 D. & Cl. 480
The statement was given by Justice Burton I apprehend, the golden rule is a rule in the constitution or statutes that is the first instance the grammatical sense of the word is adhered to if that is contrary to any expressed contention. The grammatical sense must be then modified to avoid any inconsistency but no farther.

Ramji Missar V. State of Bihar AIR 1963 SC 1088
According to Section 6 of the Probation of Offenders Act 1958, the Supreme Court stated that the date on which the age of the offender had to be determined is not the date of offense, but the date on which the sentence is pronounced by the Trial Court. Accused on the date of offense was below 21 years but on the date of judgment, he was above 21 years of age.

Therefore he is not entitled to the benefit of the statute. The golden rule was applied by stating that the accused below 21 years is entitled to the benefit of the act by sending him under the supervision of the probation officer instead of jail.

Fitzpatrick V. Sterling Housing Association Limited (1999) 4 All ER 705
The House of Lords had declined to allow same-sex partners to inherit statutory tenancies on the ground that they could not be considered to be the wife or husband of the deceased. The Appellate Court held that the Rent Act, 1977, as the House of Lords had constructed it in this case, was incompatible with the convention on the grounds of its discriminatory treatment of surviving same-sex partners. The court applied the golden rule and held that the incompatibility could be remedied by reading the words 'as his or her wife or husband' as meaning 'as they were his wife or husband.'

Tirath Singh V. Bachittar Singh, AIR 1955 SC 850
According to Section 99 of the Representation of People's Act 1951, notice shall be issued to all those persons who are a party to the election petition and at the same time to those who are not a party to it. In this case, the notices were issued to only those persons who were non-parties to the election petition. Court applied the golden rule of interpretation and stated that the notice is required against the non-parties and not the parties who already have the notice.

Free Lanka Insurance Company Limited V. Ranasinghe (1964) AC 541
It is an offense to break from prison. A prisoner escaped while the prison was on fire. Court held that the prisoner escaped saving his life. A statute that made 'an act� criminal in unqualified terms was understood as not applying where the act done was excusable or justifiable on grounds generally recognized by law.

R V. Allen (1872) LR 1 CCR 367
Here the defendant was charged under Section 57 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. The provision includes a person married shall marry any other person during the lifetime of the former husband or wife is guilty of an offense. The literal rule will not be applicable because civil courts do not recognize second marriages. The golden rule was applied to avoid ambiguity in the word marriage means to go through a ceremony of marriage.

Alder V. George (1964)
According to Section 3 of the Official Secrets Act 1920, it is an offense to enter the prohibited area or place. Under the literal rule of interpretation, he was not trespassing the prohibited area. Therefore the golden rule was applied to extend the meaning of 'vicinity' and to avoid the possible absurd outcome.

State of Punjab V. Quiser Jehan Begam, AIR 1963 SC 1604
According to Section 18 of the Land Acquisition Act 1844, an appeal shall be filed for the announcement of the award within 6 months of the announcement of the compensation. The court held that the period of limitation (6 months) is to be counted from the time when the respondent knew because the literal interpretation was leading to absurdity.

Lee V. Knapp (1967) 2 QB 442
It was a case under Section 77(1) of the Road Transport Act 1960, where it is stated that a driver causing accident shall stop after the accident. So the golden rule was applied to extend the meaning of 'stop' means to 'search the victim.' The court stated the driver has not fulfilled the requirement and has not stopped for a reasonable period of time because of which he was held liable.

State of Madhya Pradesh V. Azad Bharat Financial Company, AIR 1967 SC 276
A truck of the transporting company was taken into legal custody as it contained opium along with the apples. The transport company stated that they were unaware of the fact that opium was also loaded in the truck. According to Section 11 of the Opium Act 1878, the vehicles found liable shall be seized. By applying the literal rule of the interpretation court stated that this interpretation is leading to injustice and inequality. Therefore the golden rule is applied concluding that the words 'shall be confiscated' should be interpreted as 'may be confiscated.'

U.P.Bhoodan Yagna Samiti, U.P V. Braj Kishore & Ors. on 1988 AIR 2239, 1988 SCR Supl. (2) 859
Section 14 of the U.P. Bhoodan Yagna Act 1952 states that land must be granted to a landless person. The golden rule was applied to extend the meaning of 'person' means 'laborers' and 'landless person' means 'any laborers below poverty.'

In re Sigsworth: Bedford V. Bedford (1935)
In this case, the son murdered her mother and committed suicide. The mother had not made a will and under the Administration of Justice Act 1925, her estate would be inherited by her son. The court stated that the person who killed his mother did not get the property. The literal rule should not apply and the golden rule was used to prevent the repugnant situation. If the son inherits the estate that would amount to profiting from a crime.

The provisions should be interpreted in such a manner that every citizen is ensured justice. The meaning of the statutory provisions is not always evident. When the language of a statute is clear, there is no need for the rules of interpretation. A statute is to be read word to word and interpreted by the court.

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Written By: Shambhavi Shree, A student of KIIT School of Law, Bhubaneswar (4th year).

Awarded certificate of Excellence
Authentication No: NV31724160820-2-1120

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