Category Archives: Interpretation of Statutes




MAXIM – Ejusdem Generis, Noscitur a Socis, Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat, Reddendo Singula Singulis

1. Ejusdem Generis
According to the Black’s Law Dictionary (8th edition, 2004) the principle of Ejusdem Generis is where general words follow an enumeration of persons or things, by words of a particular and specific meaning, such general words are not to be construed in their widest extent, but are to be held as applying only to persons or things of the same general kind or class as those specifically mentioned. It is a canon of statutory construction, where general words follow the enumeration of particular classes of things, the general words will be construed as applying only to things of the same general class as those enumerated.

The expression Ejusdem Generis means of the same kind. Normally, general words should be given their natural meaning like all other words unless the context requires otherwise. But when a general word follows specific words of a distinct category, the general word may be given a restricted meaning of the same category. The general expression takes it’s meaning from the preceding particular expressions because the legislature by using the particular words of a distinct genus has shown its intention to that effect. This principle is limited in its application to general word following less general word only. If the specific words do not belong to a distinct. Genus, this rule is inapplicable. Consequently, if a general word follows only one particular word, that single particular word does not constitute a distinct genus and, therefore, Ejusdem Generis rule cannot be applied in such a case.

Exceptional stray instances are, however, available where one word genus has been created by the courts and the general word following such a genus given a restricted meaning. If the particular words exhaust the whole genus, the general word following these particular words is construed as embracing a larger genus. The principle of Ejusdem Generis is not a universal application. If the context of legislation rules out the applicability of this rule, it has no part to play in the interpretation of general words. The basis of the principle of Ejusdem Generis is that if the legislature intended general words to be used in unrestricted sense, it would not have bothered to use particular words at all.

2. Noscitur a Socis
The principle of Noscitur a Sociis is a rule of construction. It is one of the rules of language used by court to interpret legislation. This means that, the meaning of an unclear word or phrase should be determined by the words immediately surrounding it. In other words, the meaning of a word is to be judged by the company it keeps. The questionable meaning of a doubtful word can be derived from its association with other words. It can be used wherever a statutory provision contains a word or phrase that is capable of bearing more than one meaning.

This rule is explained in Maxwell on the interpretation of statutes (12th edition ) in following words “ When two or more words susceptible of analogous meaning are coupled together, they are understood to be used in their cognate sense.” The words take their colour from and are quantified by each other, the meaning of the general words being restricted to a sense analogous to that of the less general.

3. Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat:
The maxim “Ut Res Magis Valeat Quam Pereat” is a rule of construction which literally means the construction of a rule should give effect to the rule rather than destroying it .i.e., when there are two constructions possible from a provision, of which one gives effect to the provision and the other renders the provision inoperative, the former which gives effect to the provision is adopted and the latter is discarded. It generally starts with a presumption in favor of constitutionality and prefer a construction which embarks the statute within the competency of the legislature. But it is to be noted that when the presumption of constitution fails, then the statutes cannot be rendered valid or operative accordingly. The landmark case of Indra Sawhney (2000), where the Supreme Court struck down the state legislation as it was violative of constitution and ultra-vires of the legislative competency.

4. Contemporanea Exposito Est Fortissima In Lege
Meaning Contemporaneous exposition is the best and strongest in law. It is said that the best exposition of a statute or any other document is that which it has received from contemporary authority. This maxim has been confirmed by the Apex Court in Desh Bandhu Gupta v. Delhi Stock Exchange Asson. Ltd. AIR 1979 SC 1049, 1054. Contemporanea exposito is a guide to the interpretation of documents or statutes. It is one of the important external aids for interpretation. How ever great care must be taken in its application. When a document was executed between two parties, there intention can be known by their conduct at the time and after the execution of the instrument.

Where the words of the deed are ambiguous, the court may call in the acts done under it as a clue to the intention of the parties. Their acts are the result of usages and practices in the society. Therefore their acts are useful as an external aid to interpretation of the deed. This principle may also be applied in case of statutes. “Contemporanea expositio est optima et fortissinia in lege” means usage or practice developed under a statute is indicative of the meaning ascribed to its words by contemporary opinion. The maxim Contemporanea expositio as laid down by Lord Coke was applied to construing ancient statutes, but usually not applied to interpreting Acts or statutes which are comparatively modern.

The meaning publicly given by contemporary or long professional usage is presumed to be true one, even where the language has etymologically or popularly a different meaning. It is obvious that the language of a statute must be understood in the sense in which it was understood when it was passed, and those who lived at or near that time when it was passed may reasonably be supposed to be better acquainted than their descendants with the circumstances to which it had relation, as well as with the sense then attached to legislative expressions. Usages and practice developed under a statute is indicative of the meaning ascribed to its words by contemporary opinion and in case of an ancient statute, such reference to usage and practice is admissible.

He said a uniform notorious practice continued under an old statute and inaction of the legislature to amend the same are important factors to show that the practice so followed was based on correct understanding of the law. According to Lord Ellenborough, Communis opinio is evidence of what the law is. When the practice receives judicial or legislative approval it gains additional weight and is to be more respected.

5. Reddendo Singula Singulis
Reddendo singula singulis is a Latin term that means by referring each to each; referring each phrase or expression to its corresponding object. In simple words “reddendo singula singulis” means that when a list of words has a modifying phase at the end, the phrase refers only to the last. It is a rule of construction used usually in distributing property. Where there are general words of description, following a record of particular things, such general words are to be construed distributively, and if the general words will apply to some things and not to others, the general words are to be applied to those things to which they will, and not to those to which they will not apply; that is to say, each phrase, word or expression is to be referred to its suitable objects.

The best example of reddendo singula singulis is quoted from Wharton’s law Lexicon, “If anyone shall draw or load any sword or gun, the word draw is applied to sword only and the word load to gun only, the former verb to former noun and latter to latter, because it is impossible to load a sword or to draw a gun, and so of other applications of different sets of words to one another.” The reddendo singula singulis principle concerns the use of words distributively. Where a complex sentence has more than one subject, and more than one object, it may be the right construction to provide each to each, by reading the provision distributively and applying each object to its appropriate subject. A similar principle applies to verbs and their subjects, and to other parts of speech.

6. Expresssio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius
Expressio unius est exclusio alterius is a Latin phrase that means express mention of one thing excludes all others. This is one of the rules used in interpretation of statutes. The phrase indicates that items not on the list are assumed not to be covered by the statute. When something is mentioned expressly in a statute it leads to the presumption that the things not mentioned are excluded. This is an aid to construction of statutes.


Rules of Interpretation

There are certain general principles of interpretation which have been applied by Courts from time to time. Primary Rules of Interpretation are discussed hereunder.

Rule of Literal Interpretation

In construing Statutes the cardinal rule is to construe its provisions literally and grammatically giving the words their ordinary and natural meaning. This rule is also known as the Plain meaning rule. The first and foremost step in the course of interpretation is to examine the language and the literal meaning of the statute. The words in an enactment have their own natural effect and the construction of an act depends on its wording. There should be no additions or substitution of words in the construction of statutes and in its interpretation. The primary rule is to interpret words as they are. It should be taken into note that the rule can be applied only when the meanings of the words are clear i.e. words should be simple so that the language is plain and only one meaning can be derived out of the statute.

In Municipal board v. State transport authority, Rajasthan, the location of a bus stand was changed by the Regional Transport Authority. An application could be moved within 30 days of receipt of order of regional transport authority according to section 64 A of the Motor vehicles Act, 1939. The application was moved after 30 days on the contention that statute must be read as “30 days from the knowledge of the order”. The Supreme Court held that literal interpretation must be made and hence rejected the application as invalid.

Lord Atkinson stated, ‘In the construction of statutes their words must be interpreted in their ordinary grammatical sense unless there be something in the context or in the object of the statute in which they occur or in the circumstances in which they are used, to show that they were used in a special sense different from their ordinary grammatical sense.’

Meaning

To avoid ambiguity, legislatures often include “definitions” sections within a statute, which explicitly define the most important terms used in that statute. But some statutes omit a definitions section entirely, or (more commonly) fail to define a particular term. The plain meaning rule attempts to guide courts faced with litigation that turns on the meaning of a term not defined by the statute, or on that of a word found within a definition itself.

If the words are clear, they must be applied, even though the intention of the legislator may have been different or the result is harsh or undesirable. The literal rule is what the law says instead of what the law means.

A literal construction would not be denied only because the consequences to comply with the same may lead to a penalty. The courts should not be overzealous in searching for ambiguities or obscurities in words which are plain. (Tata Consultancy Services v. State of A.P

The literal rule may be understood subject to the following conditions – 
  • Statute may itself provide a special meaning for a term, which is usually to be found in the interpretation section.
  • Technical words are given ordinary technical meaning if the statute has not specified any other.
  • Words will not be inserted by implication.
  • Words undergo shifts in meaning in course of time.
  • It should always be remembered that words acquire significance from their context.

When it is said that words are to be understood first in their natural ordinary and popular sense, it is meant that words must be ascribed that natural, ordinary or popular meaning which they have in relation to the subject matter with reference to which and the context in which they have been used in the Statute. In the statement of the rule, the epithets ‘natural, “ordinary”, “literal”, “grammatical” and “popular” are employed almost interchangeably to convey the same idea.

For determination of the meaning of any word or phrase in a statute, the first question is what is the natural and ordinary meaning of that word or phrase in its context in the statute but when that natural or ordinary meaning indicates such result which cannot be opposed to having been the intention of the legislature, then to look for other meaning of the word or phrase which may then convey the true intention of the legislature.

Another important point regarding the rule of literal construction is that exact meaning is preferred to loose meaning in an Act of Parliament. In the case of Pritipal Singh v. Union of India, 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.

Rationale for this Rule

Proponents of the plain meaning rule claim that it prevents courts from taking sides in legislative or political issues. They also point out that ordinary people and lawyers do not have extensive access to secondary sources. In probate law the rule is also favored because the testator is typically not around to indicate what interpretation of a will is appropriate. Therefore, it is argued, extrinsic evidence should not be allowed to vary the words used by the testator or their meaning. It can help to provide for consistency in interpretation.

Criticism of this rule

Opponents of the plain meaning rule claim that the rule rests on the erroneous assumption that words have a fixed meaning. In fact, words are imprecise, leading justices to impose their own prejudices to determine the meaning of a statute. However, since little else is offered as an alternative discretion-confining theory, plain meaning survives.

This is the oldest of the rules of construction and is still used today, primarily because judges may not legislate. As there is always the danger that a particular interpretation may be the equivalent of making law, some judges prefer to adhere to the law’s literal wording.

The Mischief Rule

The mischief rule is a rule of statutory interpretation that attempts to determine the legislator’s intention. Originating from a 16th-century case (Heydon’s case) in the United Kingdom, its main aim is to determine the “mischief and defect” that the statute in question has set out to remedy, and what ruling would effectively implement this remedy. When the material words are capable of bearing two or more constructions the most firmly established rule or construction of such words “of all statutes, in general, be they penal or beneficial, restrictive or enlarging of the common law is the rule of Heydon’s case. The rules laid down, in this case, are also known as Purposive Construction or Mischief Rule.

The mischief rule is a certain rule that judges can apply in statutory interpretation in order to discover Parliament’s intention. It essentially asks the question: By creating an Act of Parliament what was the “mischief” that the previous law did not cover?

Heydon’s case

This was set out in Heydon’s Case where it was stated that there were four points to be taken into consideration when interpreting a statute:

  • What was the common law before the making of the act?
  • What was the “mischief and defect” for which the common law did not provide?
  • What remedy the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth?
  • What is the true reason for the remedy?

The office of all the judges is always to make such construction as shall suppress the mischief, and advance the remedy, and to suppress subtle inventions and evasions for continuance of the mischief, and pro privato commodo, and to add force and life to the cure and remedy, according to the true intent of the makers of the Act, pro bono publico.

The application of this rule gives the judge more discretion than the literal and the golden rule as it allows him to effectively decide on Parliament’s intent. It can be argued that this undermines Parliament’s supremacy and is undemocratic as it takes lawmaking decisions away from the legislature.

Use of this Rule

This rule of construction is of narrower application than the golden rule or the plain meaning rule, in that it can only be used to interpret a statute and, strictly speaking, only when the statute was passed to remedy a defect in the common law. Legislative intent is determined by examining secondary sources, such as committee reports, treatises, law review articles and corresponding statutes. This rule has often been used to resolve ambiguities in cases in which the literal rule cannot be applied.

In the case of Thomson v. Lord Clan Morris, Lord Lindley M.R. stated that in interpreting any statutory enactment regard should not only be paid to the words used, but also to the history of the Act and the reasons which lead to its being passed.

In the case of CIT v. Sundaradevi, it was held by the Apex Court that unless there is an ambiguity, it would not be open to the Court to depart from the normal rule of construction which is that the intention of the legislature should be primarily to gather from the words which are used. It is only when the words used are ambiguous that they would stand to be examined and considered on surrounding circumstances and constitutionally proposed practices.

The Supreme Court in Bengal Immunity Co. v. State of Bihar, applied the mischief rule in construction of Article 286 of the Constitution of India. After referring to the state of law prevailing in the province prior to the constitution as also to the chaos and confusion that was brought about in inter-state trade and commerce by indiscriminate exercise of taxing powers by the different Provincial Legislatures founded on the theory of territorial nexus, Chief Justice S.R. Das, stated “It was to cure this mischief of multiple taxation and to preserve the free flow of interstate trade or commerce in the Union of India regarded as one economic unit without any provincial barrier that the constitution maker adopted Article 286 in the constitution”.

A principle to be valued must be capable of wider application than the mischief which gave it existence. These are designed to approach immortality as nearly as human institutions can approach it’. Mischief Rule is applicable where language is capable of more than one meaning. It is the duty of the Court to make such construction of a statue which shall suppress the mischief and advance the remedy.

Advantages
  • The Law Commission sees it as a far more satisfactory way of interpreting acts as opposed to the Golden or Literal rules.
  • It usually avoids unjust or absurd results in sentencing.
Disadvantages
  • It is considered to be out of date as it has been in use since the 16th century, when common law was the primary source of law and parliamentary supremacy was not established.
  • It gives too much power to the unelected judiciary which is argued to be undemocratic.
  • In the 16th century, the judiciary would often draft acts on behalf of the king and were therefore well qualified in what mischief the act was meant to remedy.
  • It can make the law uncertain.

Golden Rule of Interpretation

The Golden rule, or British rule, is a form of statutory interpretation that allows a judge to depart from a word’s normal meaning in order to avoid an absurd result.

It is a compromise between the plain meaning (or literal) rule and the mischief rule. Like the plain meaning rule, it gives the words of a statute their plain, ordinary meaning. However, when this may lead to an irrational result that is unlikely to be the legislature’s intention, the judge can depart from this meaning. In the case of homographs, where a word can have more than one meaning, the judge can choose the preferred meaning; if the word only has one meaning, but applying this would lead to a bad decision, the judge can apply a completely different meaning.

This rule may be used in two ways. It is applied most frequently in a narrow sense where there is some ambiguity or absurdity in the words themselves.

For example, imagine there may be a sign saying “Do not use lifts in case of fire.” Under the literal interpretation of this sign, people must never use the lifts, in case there is a fire. However, this would be an absurd result, as the intention of the person who made the sign is obviously to prevent people from using the lifts only if there is currently a fire nearby.

The second use of the golden rule is in a wider sense, to avoid a result that is obnoxious to principles of public policy, even where words have only one meaning. Example: The facts of a case are; a son murdered his mother and committed suicide. The courts were required to rule on who then inherited the estate, the mother’s family, or the son’s descendants. There was never a question of the son profiting from his crime, but as the outcome would have been binding on lower courts in the future, the court found in favour of the mother’s family.

Rule of Harmonious Construction

When there is a conflict between two or more statues or two or more parts of a statute then the rule of harmonious construction needs to be adopted. The rule follows a very simple premise that every statute has a purpose and intent as per law and should be read as a whole. The interpretation consistent of all the provisions of the statute should be adopted. In the case in which it shall be impossible to harmonize both the provisions, the court’s decision regarding the provision shall prevail.

The rule of harmonious construction is the thumb rule to the interpretation of any statute. An interpretation which makes the enactment a consistent whole should be the aim of the Courts and a construction which avoids inconsistency or repugnancy between the various sections or parts of the statute should be adopted. The Courts should avoid “a head on clash”, in the words of the Apex Court, between the different parts of an enactment and conflict between the various provisions should be sought to be harmonized. The normal presumption should be consistency and it should not be assumed that what is given with one hand by the legislature is sought to be taken away by the otherThe rule of harmonious construction has been tersely explained by the Supreme Court thus, “When there are, in an enactment two provisions which cannot be reconciled with each other, they should be so interpreted, that if possible, the effect should be given to both”. A construction which makes one portion of the enactment a dead letter should be avoided since harmonization is not equivalent to destruction.

It is a settled rule that an interpretation which results in hardship, injustice, inconvenience or anomaly should be avoided and that which supports the sense of justice should be adopted. The Court leans in favour of an interpretation which conforms to justice and fair play and prevents injustice.

When there are two provisions in a statute, which are in apparent conflict with each other, they should be interpreted such that effect can be given to both and that construction which renders either of them inoperative and useless should not be adopted except in the last resort.

This principle is illustrated in the case of Raj Krishna v. Binod. In this case, two provisions of Representation of People Act, 1951, which were in apparent conflict, were brought forth. Section 33 (2) says that a Government Servant can nominate or second a person in election but section 123(8) says that a Government Servant cannot assist any candidate in election except by casting his vote. The Supreme Court observed that both these provisions should be harmoniously interpreted and held that a Government Servant was entitled to nominate or second a candidate seeking election in State Legislative assembly. This harmony can only be achieved if Section 123(8) is interpreted as giving the govt. servant the right to vote as well as to nominate or second a candidate and forbidding him to assist the candidate in any other manner.

The important aspects of this principle are –
  • The courts must avoid a head on clash of seemingly contradicting provisions and they must construe the contradictory provisions so as to harmonize them.
  • The provision of one section cannot be used to defeat the provision contained in another unless the court, despite all its effort, is unable to find a way to reconcile their differences.
  • When it is impossible to completely reconcile the differences in contradictory provisions, the courts must interpret them in such as way so that effect is given to both the provisions as much as possible.
  • Courts must also keep in mind that interpretation that reduces one provision to a useless number or a dead lumbar, is not harmonious construction.
  • To harmonize is not to destroy any statutory provision or to render it loose.