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Interpretative Tools of Statutes: An Analysis

What is Statutory Interpretation?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines interpretation as an explanation or opinion of what something means[1]. Thus, the interpretation of a statute, by the application of this definition, should mean the explanation or opinion of what the statute means. However, judgments can't be made on mere opinions, as these interpretations are to be used to decide cases.

Statutory Interpretation is the process of determining the true and ordinary meaning of a statute. The Parliament is responsible to compound a statute, but the statutes are used by the Courts, based on which the Courts are supposed to deliver judgments, so the proper interpretation of the statute becomes one of the most basic functions of a Court. The Courts does so using various rules, theories and tools of interpretation that have been established by continuous exercise by the courts.

Statutes are usually straightforward and thus the intention with which they were written is very easily interpretable by the Judiciary. However, in some cases they do tend to have a certain hint of ambiguity and imprecision in the language used which is a hindrance in the interpretation of its true meaning, and a Judge must resolve this in order to deliver a just verdict. This is where the practice of statutory interpretation comes into play and renders the Judge capable of properly determining how the Parliament meant the statute to be applied practically.

Need for Statutory Interpretation

The Courts decide what the law is, even if they were laid down by the Parliament. It is the interpretation of statutes, regulation, or previous judgments by the Courts that shape the common law of the country. At times there may be ambiguity in the language used in the statue and so there might be multiple meanings that can be derived, proper interpretation of these statutes is necessary in order to avoid the meaning which were not intended. As per a constitution bench of the Supreme Court:

�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[2]

The same was held again by the Supreme court when it stated:
�Where the words are clear and there is no obscurity, and there is no ambiguity and the intention of the legislature is clearly conveyed, there is no scope for court to take upon itself the task of amending or altering the statutory provisions[3]

Words may be deceptive at times and what the Parliament meant while forming the law might not be clearly visible at the first glance. And so, because of the holes in law and ambiguity in the laws made, the Judges are to be especially well versed with proper statutory interpretation in order to deliver proper justice and the proper application of the will of the Constitution.

The motivation behind Interpretation of Statutes is to assist the Judge with determining the intention of the Legislature � not to control that intention or to keep it as far as possible, which the Judge may consider sensible or practical.

Tools of Statutory Interpretation

Certain tools exist which can be used by the Judiciary to perform a proper interpretation of the Statute. The uses of these tools facilitate the Judges to better interpret the meaning of the statute in the way the Parliament intended it to be. The way a Judge interprets the statute depends heavily on the tools he decided to use. These tools do not have a definite defined boundary and can overlap each other as well.

Three widely proclaimed tools are:
  1. Ordinary Meaning
  2. Statutory Context
  3. Canons of Construction
    Although there are a few other tools available as well, like legislative history, but their use is highly debatable.

Ordinary Meaning

Judges often try and look for the simple meaning of the statutory text. When a Judge interprets the statute while assuming that the words used in the statute are to be used as they are meant in the popular or common speech, then it is said that the Judge is looking at the ordinary meaning of the statute.

Although this tool might sound a lot like one of the three rules of interpretation, namely the Literal Rule, it should certainly not be confused by it. Although they usually give similar results but at times there might be certain differences when the two of them are used.

The literal rule takes into account only the literal meaning of the word used, whereas when ordinary meaning of the statute is used, it takes into account what the words and phrases usually intend to mean. This shall be more easily understandable using an example. If a statue states that:

The use of firearms is illegal in the state

The literal rule prohibits all sorts of use of a firearm, while ordinary meaning might only interpret the �use of firearms as �discharge of a firearms or �firing of firearms; as it is intended in the common speech.

As stated by the Supreme court in the case of Gurudevdatta v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 2001 SC 1980:
�It is a cardinal principle of interpretation of statute that the words of a statute must be understood in their natural, ordinary or popular sense and construed according to their grammatical meaning, unless such construction leads to some absurdity or unless there is something in the context or in the object of the statute to suggest to the contrary[4]

Under the same case it was also said by the Supreme court that:
�The golden rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning[5]

Thus, the tool of ordinary meaning overlaps more with the Golden rule than it does with the Literal rule.

At times ordinary meaning is also referred to as natural meaning, normal meaning or even customary meaning. In order to find the ordinary meaning of the statute the judges takes help of various materials like dictionaries to help them get a better understanding of words and a choice of definition for the same words to choose from. They also look into other places in the law like previous judgements to find evidence for ordinary meaning.

Ordinary meaning has its limitations too, as at times statutes tend to have ambiguity in its language, and it might be specified in the statue that are word, phrase, or a part of it is to be taken in a specified meaning in law, trade or any other field[6]. When such ambiguity appears in a statute, the Court relies on other tools of interpretation which it has at its disposal.

Statutory Context
The interpretation of a statute begins from the language in which its written itself[7]. One of the general most basic concepts of interpreting a statute is to interpret as whole instead of doing it part by part, as the former provides us with a basic context in which all the entirety of the statue is to be interpreted.

This is one of the earliest modern day concepts of statutory interpretation. In the 1850s, the then Chief Justice of the United States said:
�In expounding a statute, we must not be guided by a single sentence or member of a sentence, but look to the provisions of the whole law, and to its object and policy.[8]

When ambiguity appears in a statute, the ordinary meaning becomes hard to use as there appears to be multiple possible interpretations of a word or phrase used. In such cases, Courts use the entirety of the statute to better understand the context in which the given word or phrase was used. The Court may turn to the statute as a whole or other similar provisions in order to find some evidence of context to counter the ambiguity that appeared in the statute before them.

This helps the Court to establish a meaning in which the given disputed language was framed, as the context gained by going through the statute or other similar provisions provides an idea of the intention with which the Parliament came up with it in the first place. This also helps in avoiding further discrepancies as the Court can now give identical terms found further in the document the same meaning as they did before because they were written in the same context.

Thus, the meaning of the statute, is more profound and easier to interpret when viewed as a whole instead of part by part viewing of each statement, as interpreting it as a whole adds to the purpose and directions with which the statute which is to be interpreted was drafted by Parliament in the first place. Moreover, it allows to view the law in a broader more profound way, which further enables the court to interpret the statute with convenience, as the ambiguity present in the language clears up because of the context provided by the whole statute.

It was said by the US supreme court that:
�Statutory a holistic endeavour. A provision that may seem ambiguous in isolation is often clarified by the remainder of the statutory scheme....[9]

However, it was also noted that:
�A given term in the same statute may take on distinct characters from association with distinct statutory objects calling for different implementation strategies.[10]

This implies that when a Judge looks into a statute, he might find that the Parliament used different language for the same terms in different provisions, thus interpreting the term the same way as done in the other provision would be wrong. This is also one of the reasons that legislative history is disputed as a viable tool of interpretation of statutes.

Whether a term should be used in a similar construction as in another provision is determined by other rules which we will learn while discussing the canons of construction.

Canons of Construction

Over time, as the Courts engage in cases, interpret statutes, pass judgments and settle disputes, they have created �Canons of Construction. These canons are basically calculated assumptions at what the lawmakers intended when the formed the statute. They provide for basic guidelines to help the Judges interpret the statute better. However, these canons are not to be mistaken as Rules of interpretation, as these canons aren't mandatorily applied while interpreting a statute.

The Court may decline to apply a canon if it appears to the Court that the canon is deemed unfit for application to interpret the statute for the case. Although they are not absolute rules which are to be followed, the canons are widely used by the courts for interpretation of statutes. It was stated by the honourable formal judge of Gujarat High Court Justice A.R. Tiwari that:

�In interpreting an Act of Parliament, it is not, in general, a true line of construction to decide according to the strict letter of the Act; but the Courts will rather consider what is it's fair meaning, and will expound it differently from the letter, in order to preserve the intent�There are many so-called rules of construction that Courts of law have resorted to in their interpretation of Statutes but the paramount rule remains that every Statute is to be expounded according to its manifest and expressed intention.

It is the basic principle of legal policy that law should serve the public interest. The Court, when considering in relation to the facts of the instant case, which of the opposing constructions of the enactment would give effect to the legislative intention, should presume that the legislator intended to observe this principle. It should, therefore, strive to avoid adopting a construction which is in anyway adverse to the public interest.[11]

However much like how the application of a canon is debatable, what is considered to be a canon of construction and what is not is debatable as well. Some Judges might not agree on something that is considered to be a canon for other Judges. The issue of incorporating a canon of construction into statutory interpretation or even considering a canon of construction is solely upto the Judge who is to interpret the statute as the application of these canons isn't mandatory as the Rules of interpretation are.

Judges and legal experts have divided the canons in two different categories, namely:

  1. Language/Textual/Semantic Canons of Construction
  2. Substantive Canons of Construction
The Semantic Canons of Construction are considered to be neutral and analytical guidelines to decode the language of a statute. They are at times even referred to as �rules of thumb for decoding statutory language because they solely focus on interpreting the texts of the statute using rules of grammar and the common language usage of the words in the statutory text. They thus also tend to overlap with the tool of Ordinary Meaning.

The primary objective of application of such canons is to determine what the lawmakers probably meant while using the given words and phrases in the statute[12]. Semantic canons allow the courts to not interpret the statute in a way that latter parts become un-operational or redundant.

The Substantive Canons of Construction unlike the semantic canons tend to imply and express legal presumptions to support or to weaken a certain outcome. These canons emerge from the Constitution, judicial public interests and other notions. They are often used to defend constitutional values since they tend to focus on the legal outcomes instead of the literal meaning of the language used. They provide that if a certain interpretation calls for unconstitutionality of the statute then the Court shall look for another possible interpretation of the statute.

The task of interpreting statutes and delivering rightful judgments is of utmost importance and the Judiciary has a huge responsibility on its shoulder to bear the title of the executioner of this task. To aid it in this task, the Judiciary deploys an arsenal of tools to help it understand and convey the meaning of a statute better. The huge variety allows the Judiciary to be more flexible while interpreting the language and better application of the tools allows it to stay close to the meaning and intention as the Parliament intended it to have.

Making the choice of selecting the right tools for statutory interpretation is one of the problems faced by the Courts. To tackle this, the Courts should perhaps try to focus on the Ordinary Meaning of the statute and when facing an ambiguity should consult the entire statute and other similar provisions for Statutory Context, while doing so it must also focus on whether the constitutionality of the statute is maintained by the achieved interpretation. If not, it shall proceed to repeat the same with a different selection of tools, which will allow it to perceive a better, more precise interpretation of the statute which is closer to what the lawmakers intended it to be.

Although the interpretation depends greatly on the tools favoured by the Court, the basic approach to interpret the statute in a way that serves the public interest and remains in harmony with the Constitution remains the same and shall always be kept in mind.

  1. Interpretation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, available at, last accessed 6 January 2021
  2. R.S. Nayak v. A.R. Antulay, AIR 1984 SC 684
  3. Grasim Industries Ltd. v Collector of Customs, Bombay, (2002) 4 SCC 297
  4. Gurudevdatta v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 2001 SC 1980
  5. Supra note 4
  6. Valerie C. Brannon, �Statutory Interpretation: Theories,Tools,andTrends, Congressional Research Service
  7. Statutory Interpretation:General Principles and Recent Trends ,, University of North Texas Libraries Government Documents Department
  8. United States v. Boisdor�'s Heirs, 49 U.S. (8 How.) 113, 122 (1850)
  9. United Sav. Ass'n of Tex. v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Assocs., Ltd., 484 U.S. 365, 371 (1988)
  10. Envtl. Def. v. Duke Energy Corp., 549 U.S. 561, 574 (2007)
  11. Ashok Ambu Parmar v. The Commissioner of Police, Vadodara City and Ors., AIR 1987 Guj. 147
  12. Supra note 7

    Award Winning Article Is Written By: Mr.Amey Vikram Chauhan
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