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Analysis of Literal Rule of Interpretation

The Literal Rule of Interpretation is the oldest rule and is followed to date by the Judges across the globe. The rationale behind the Literal Rule is that it prevents courts from making biased decisions when the issues are relating to political matters. This rule also restricts the Courts from creating new laws through the interpretation of the existing ones. This rule follows the words of the Legislature and the implication of this rule brings certainty in interpretation as the law would be interpreted exactly as it is provided by the Legislature.

As every coin has two sides, there are some disadvantages of applying the Literal Rule of Interpretation. This at times results in the provisions being vague and absurd and inconsistent with the intention if the framers of the Statute. There cannot be a fixed rule for Interpretation and similarly, a statute cannot be drafted without having multiple interpretations. As Justice Donaldson contended, the interpretation of statutes is a craft as much as a science and the judges, as craftsmen, select and apply the appropriate rules as the tools of their trade.

According to Black's Law Dictionary, A Statute is a formal written enactment of a legislative authority that governs a country, state, city, or county. 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 issued by Government agencies[1].

In general sense, the law formed and passed by the Legislature in form of an Act or any provision of law which prohibits or permits anything. There are different kinds of Statutes depending upon their purpose, duration, nature, etc. For example, statutes made for a particular time frame are known as temporary statutes and on the other hand statues without an expiry are known as Perpetual Statutes. Depending upon the object of statutes, there are Permissive Statutes, Enabling Statutes, Prohibitory Statutes, etc.

Emergence of Interpretation
The Judges were part of the King's Council and played an important role in forming the statutes at that time so there was no problem while interpretation of statutes thus framed by them. Later on, the King became the sole Legislator of Law (with the advice of the Parliament) and thus, it became difficult to interpret as the intention behind the formation of some provisions was not understood by the Judges which gave rise to an inconsistency. This was solved by finding out the King's will at the time of making the Statute and implementing the same.

The revolution in the 17th Century abolished the King's rule and the doctrine of ‘Separation of Power' came into vogue and it became the Judge's duty to perform the required interpretation. Thus, in this way, the interpretation was focused on the intent of the statute and then the modern rules of interpretation were established namely, Literal Rule, Golden Rule & the Mischief Rule.

Necessity of Interpretation
The necessity for interpreting statute arises when the meaning derived from the sections/words is ambiguous or defies the object of the Statute. Interpretation of Statutes means the process of understanding and decoding the sections of the Statute or a Statute as a whole. This process is carried out to make it more relevant to the on-going case and the judgments so passed, should be made in accordance with the main intent of the Statute, not differ from the intention of the Legislature.

Many-a-times, the sections drafted by the Legislature, while making the statute, are made in a general view to cover everything the statute is dealing with. This gives rise to some ambiguities. And to deal with these ambiguities, it is the duty of the Judges to interpret the Statute in such a manner that it fulfills the intention behind making the Statute.

Judges are the only persons constitutionally empowered to interpret the Statutes and therefore, the responsibility of interpretation lies solely on the Judiciary. Because of such responsibilities, there are some rules established for the purpose of Interpretation. These rules are known as the General Rules of Interpretation. The following are the General Rules of Interpretation.

General Rules of Interpretation:
  1. Literal Rule.
    This is the first rule to be applied by the Judges while Statutory Interpretation. As the name suggests, the Literal Rule focuses on the plain meaning of the words which are meant to be used in the strict and ordinary sense by a reasonable man.
  2. Golden Rule.
    After applying the Literal Rule, if the words create an absurdity, inconvenience or are inconsistent with the main intention of the Statute, then Golden Rule of Interpretation is applied. Here, while interpreting the words, the emphasis is to be laid on the intention of the Legislature and also the purpose of Statute[1].
  3. Mischief Rule.
    According to William Blackstone, for interpreting a provision, there are three important points to be considered that is the old law, the Mischief which gave rise to the legislation of new statute, and the remedy provided by the new statute[2]. Interpretation must be done in such a manner so as to satisfy the remedy provided by the new statute. Mischief rule is not practical with new circumstances emerging that were unforeseen by the legislator.
  4. Harmonious Construction.
    When two legislations are head on with one another because of some contradicting provisions, it is the implied duty of Judges to avoid clashes between two or more statutes and to harmonize them. Harmonious construction means not let the provision of one statute defeat another. To avoid such clashes, a way out is preferred by the Judges by the means of Harmonious Construction.

These were the important established rules for the Interpretation of Statutes. There are also other tools for Interpretation such as internal aids i.e. Long Title, The Preamble of Statute, Headings, Marginal Notes, etc. and external aids such as History, Dictionaries, Judicial Construction, etc. these External aids are not contained in statutes but are to be found elsewhere.

Understanding the Literal Rule
The Literal Rule means that the words need to be interpreted in the strict ordinary meaning and the scope of words should not be considered more than its ordinary meaning. The words are to be understood in their ordinary and natural meaning unless the object of the statute suggests otherwise[3].

This is the first rule to be applied by the Judges while interpreting the statute. Brett, MR called it a cardinal rule that Whenever you have to understand or interpret a statute or document you do not interpret it according to the mere ordinary general meaning of the words, but according to the ordinary meaning of the words as applied to the subject matter with regard to which they are used[4]. The basic meaning of the word in question is to be understood in the first place and that meaning is to be implemented while interpreting.

If and only if the meaning so derived is contrary to the object of the statute or is inconsistent with the statute, other rules of interpretation are to be adopted. Generally, the important terms of a Statute are explained in the definitions clause of the statute. In case, these definitions are not explained or anyone is left out, then there comes the need for interpretation of such terms.

The exact meaning of a provision is always preferred over loose meaning of the same provision. In a case, it was held that there is a presumption that the words are used in an Act of Parliament correctly and exactly and not loosely and inexactly. This means that the framers of the Act have used the word reasonably after understanding the meaning of the word and not with an absurdity[5].

Under Literal Rule, the popular meaning of the word must also be considered. For example, the word marriage in ‘cruelty during the time of marriage' meant only marriage till the emergence of the concept of live-in-relationships. So now, Court has to interpret the term marriage in such a manner that the popular concept is also covered under its purview.

In one of the most recent judgments, the counsel on behalf of the respondent submitted that it is a settled principle of law that a criminal statute has to be construed strictly. In cases where two interpretations are possible, the Courts must lean towards the construction which exempts the subject from penalty rather than the one which imposes the same[6].

In the case of R vs. Harris[7], the defendant bit off the victim's nose. According to the statute, it is an offence 'to stab cut or wound'. The court interpreted the Statute in such a manner that it gave a pre-requisite for the act of the defendant to be an offence and that is the usage of an instrument. Therefore, the defendant was held not liable for biting.

Article 233(2) of the Constitution of India provides for the qualification of an Advocate as the District Judge. The Statute reads as:
a person shall only be eligible to be appointed as a District Judge if he has been, for not less than seven years, an advocate or pleader, and is recommended by the High Court for appointment.

Applying Literal Interpretation, the Supreme Court of India held that:
it is clear from the expression has been that the present perfect continuous tense is used for a position which began sometime in the past and is still continuing, and that therefore such person must, with the requisite period, still be continuing as an advocate on the date of his application[8].

Advantages of Literal Rule.
Literal rule was defined by Lord Tindal as, the words themselves alone do…best declare the intention of the lawgiver. The rationale behind this was to maintain the faith of the general public on the Legislative bodies and not giving the power to make laws in the hands of the Judges the way of Interpreting Statutes. The Literal Rule follows the words of the Legislature. According to Lord Diplock, it is not for the Judge to invent fancied ambiguities.[9]

As the Act is framed by the Legislature, the Literal Rule basically forces the Judges to follow the same. The Literal rule of interpretation is most preferable when there are issues related to politics as the Judge cannot make any decision according to his discretion and needs to be stick to the provisions framed. This also helps to restrict the Judiciary from creating laws contrary to the provisions of the Statute.

This also makes the Act and its provisions easy to understand for the general public. Because of interpreting only the ordinary meaning of the words, the process of interpretation becomes more certain and brings consistency in interpreting the Statute.


Literal Rule rests on the assumption that there is only one meaning for a particular word. This restricts the scope of deriving meaning from the context of the Statute and depending solely upon the plain wordings. As stated by Krishna Iyer J to be literal in meaning is to see the skin and miss the soul[10]. This is the reason the Judges prefer to apply the golden rule instead of the Literal rule so as to consider the intent of the Statute and not the plain words.

According to Salmond:
The essence of law lies in the spirit, not in its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it.

The implication of Literal Rule creates absurdity which means that it makes the provision vague and inconsistent with the whole Statute, departing the meaning from the intention of framing the particular Statute. Lord Reid in DPP v Ottewell affirmed that the imprecision of the English language… is such that it is extremely difficult to draft any provision which is not ambiguous in that sense.

There cannot be a fixed rule for the purpose of Interpretation when dealing with cases that are all unique in some sense or the other. In a similar way, there cannot be a statute which is made leaving no scope of Interpretation. According to Justice Donaldson, the interpretation of statutes is a craft as much as a science and the judges, as craftsmen, select and apply the appropriate rules as the tools of their trade.

This is the oldest rule and is still in use by Judges as they don't want to legislate. Even if a slight interpretation changes the meaning, it is equivalent to making of a new law and therefore, Judges prefer the literal meaning of words in the provisions of the Statute.

According to Gray:
It is the duty of the judicature to ascertain the true legal meaning of the words used by the legislature.

And for achieving this, the Judges need not require to stick to one certain principle or rule of interpretation. The courts should not select any one of the Rules of Interpretation and apply it to the case, but, the courts should take the purview of all the possible means and arrive at a balanced conclusion as the Courts are the places of Justice.

  1. Kehar Singh v. State (Delhi Admn.), AIR 1988 SC 1883.
  2. William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England.
  3. Crawford v Spooner, (1846) 4 Moo Ind App 179, p 181.
  4. Lion Insurance Association v Tucker, (1883-84) 12 QBD 176
  5. Pritipal Singh V. Union of India (AIR 1982 SC 1413, P. 1419(1982)).
  6. The State Of Gujarat vs Mansukhbhai Kanjibhai Shah on 27 April, 2020.
  7. R v Harris (1836) 7 C & P 446
  8. Deepak Aggarwal v Keshav Kaushik, (2013) 5 SCC 277, p 331.
  9. Duport Steels Ltd. v Sire, (1980) 1 All E.R. 527, 541.
  10. Chairman, Board of Mining Examination and Chief Inspector of Mines v Ramjee, AIR 1977 SC 965.
  11. Black, Henry Campbell (1990). Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition
Written By: Abhinav Palsikar - KIIT School of Law

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