Interpretation of Statute


It is a well established fact that the legislature is highest law making body and the court is merely an interpreter of the law. But actually the fact is by interpreting the law the court can make comprehensive changes in the actual implementation and overall maneuver of the law. This can be easily be gathered by analyzing the statutory interpretation made by Indian judiciary and its effect on India and its citizens as a whole.

The living example of such effect is interpretation of Part III (Fundamental Rights) of Indian Constitution and especially Article 21[1], wider and liberal interpretation of this article by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has granted many fundamental beneficial rights to the citizens of the country[2] and even ensured actual execution of these rights by liberally interpreting the concept of locus standi[3] with further evolution of Public Interest Litigation through which any public spirited person can file a petition on behalf of those who has no access to Court. Such evolutions with an important art of interpretation have ensured principles of rule of law and equal justice or justice at door step in the developing country like India. But here it is important to mention that the manner and expansion of interpretation by judiciary has been criticized by many and termed as ‘over judicial activism’ with interference in the field of legislature. This point has been discussed in detail in the subsequent submission.

Moving further, to understand everything about interpretation which has been gradually evolved in modern context from ancient Indian rules with the help of follows up of different rules/doctrines in different situations which has arisen for different statutes. In light of this evolution, the utmost important aspect to understand for us is the meaning of term ‘statute, the very first term on which emphasis of the whole submission lies.

The word ‘Statute’ generally is defined as the written will of the legislature solemnly expressed according to the forms necessary to constitute it the law of the State.[4] Normally, the term denotes personification of authoritative blueprint and words used in the same constitute part of law. These blueprints are chief source of law which is known as legislation. The other sources are precedents and customs. Each of these sources finds its expression in a language or words used by authorities.[5] Many times the use of language in the legislation even does not carry the clear cut meaning in dictionaries. It contains many alternative meanings applicable in different contexts and for different purposes so that no clear field for the application of a word becomes identified. In such a situation, importance of interpretation comes into picture. For proper and healthy application of law, it is important to have uniform expansion of language or words used by the authorities/law-makers. In a case, if one judge takes the narrow view and the other the broad one, the law will connote different things for different persons and soon there will be race for window shopping for justice. Moreover, we always need to keep in mind that articulating a law is not equal to the execution of law. For the purpose of execution, proper understanding of law or statute is utmost important and better understanding is only possible through proper interpretation of the statute.

It is of general believed that the law is deemed to be what the Court interprets it to be. The very concept of ‘interpretation’ connotes the introduction of elements which are necessarily extrinsic to the words in the statute.[6]

The term interpretation is defined as the process by which the Courts seek to ascertain the intent of the Legislature through the medium of the authoritative form in which it is expressed. As everyone knows, administration of justice by Court is being conducted according to the law and law requires having some rules of interpretation to ensure just and uniform decisions. The art of correct interpretation only depend on the ability to read what is stated in plain language, read between the lines, read ‘through’ the provision, examining the intent of the Legislature and call upon case laws and other aids to interpretation.[7]

Such art as popularly known as the rules of interpretation has been evolved in about all legal jurisprudence. Such an evolution is a result of many considerations starting from general scope, purpose of the legislation mingled with intention of legislatures and from the legal rights of the parties independent of the instrument or law in question to many other relevant particulars. In simple words, this evolution is a logical process which is adopted for determining the true sense of any form of language, the sense which their author intended to convey and to ensure justice as the end result.

The present essay entry focuses upon cardinal rules and general relevance of interpretation of statutes as being applied in Indian context and as been evolved by Indian Judiciary with the passage of time. The enumeration below is being substantiated with the relevant case laws of Indian jurisprudence but before that, it is important to analyze historical aspect of rules of interpretation and the same has been enumerated in the following part.


Indian historical rules of interpretation of statute have not got the due recognition in the present study of rules of interpretation. Many few peoples are aware about the existence of such rules even in India. But in actual, there are many modern rules whose foundation has been laid down in ancient rules of interpretation.  These ancient Indian rules are popularly known as ‘Mimamsa Rules of Interpretation.’

These rules are primarily for Vedanta[8] and have contributed a lot in formulation and development of Hindu Law. The basic aim of these rules is to give interpretation of the Vedas, the earliest scriptures of Hinduism, and to provide a philosophical justification for the observance of Vedic rituals.

A basic discussion on six important Mimamsa rules is as follow:

1) Upakarma-Upasamhara-

This rule is basically to ensure unity of thought in the beginning as well as in the end and it further indicates that statute should be read as a whole. There is one basic purpose or intent which runs through the whole Statute. Moreover, in the very first instant, interpreter should look into preamble and epilogue at the first;[9]

2) Abhyasa

This rule is an indication of repetitive process, meaning thereby that what has been repeatedly said is because of legislature’s continuous effort to support his aim;[10]

3) Apurvata,

This rule is an indication of novelty or uncommon nature of the proof. It is to see by this rule whether there is some thing novel to be achieved by the legislation;[11]

4) Phala,

This rule suggests that there is need to go through word to word of the statute because each word has specific thing to add on or to indicate upon and the result achieved after doing all this need to be clearly gone through to achieve a correct conclusion;[12]

5) Atharvada,

This rule indicates help of external aids is useful to interpret any statute. This rule is widely followed in the modern context;[13]

6) Upapatti

This is the last but most important rule which in literal sense is known as logical deduction. This rule has its importance in case of ambiguity in the enactment.[14]

These rules of interpretation are India’s one of great achievements, but regrettably few people in our country are aware about the great intellectual achievements of ancestors and the intellectual treasury they have bequeathed upon India. As rightly stated by Justice Katju[15] that Maxwell and Craies usually get quoted on issue of Interpretation but Indian indigenous system of interpretation is not been quoted even by Indian Lawyers in Indian Courts. Recently one of the Supreme Court judgments, Ispat Industries Ltd. v. Commissioner of Customs[16], has refereed these rules while deciding an appeal under the Customs Tariff Act, 1975.

After submitting a historical perspective, a detailed discussion on modern Indian context upon interpretation of statute requires much focus for the purpose of present submission. The following part focuses upon the same while enumerating different aspects of rules of interpretation applicable in Indian courts for statutory interpretation.


The rules of interpretation are soul of arid body of legislation.

With respect to modern principles of interpretation, Indian Courts have evolved number of rules of interpretation which can help them to resolve any sort of difficulty. These rules have major role to play in proper and beneficial implementation of law under the garb of different rule, expressions of interpretation. But before detailed discussion upon rules and expressions, it is important to keep in mind that to interpret any statute, three basic rules or processes are to be followed. These processes are:

1) Primary Rule of Interpretation:

This rule has following steps involved which an interpreter has to follow:

a. Read and analyze a section; 

b. Ascertain the primary meaning of the words used; 

c. Ascertain the grammatical, literal and plain meaning of the words used in the section.

This rule has further been explained in detail in the name of ‘literal rule of interpretation’ in the subsequent submission.

2) Secondary Rule of Interpretation:

This rule is basically states about application of internal and external aids to ensure proper interpretation of statute. Application of Internal and External aids has been explained in the subsequent submission.

3) Final Rule of Interpretation:

Interpretation of every statute must be based upon the aforesaid primary and secondary rules. But there may be a situation when conflict may arise on simultaneous application of above rules, to avoid such conflict, final rule i.e. principle of harmonious construction come into picture. This rule has further been explained in the subsequent submission. Every effort should be made to ensure that all the primary and secondary rules are simultaneously satisfied.[17]

Here, it is also to be focus that certain specific statutes have specific pattern of Interpretation as enumerated in numerous case laws. To illustrate this point, following submission is important.

1) For Penal Statute, it is always need to have a strict interpretation[18] and with respect to mens rea it is always presumed that it is required to prove in each case unless the statute specifically provides for the absence of the same;

In the case of State of Andhra Pradesh v. Nagoti Venkataramana[19] , it has been held by the Supreme Court that in the interpretation of penal provisions, strict construction is required to be adopted and if any real doubt arises, necessarily the reasonable benefit of doubt would be extended to the accused. 

2) For Beneficial Statute such as Statutes related to Industry/workmen, it is always important to have beneficial liberal interpretation[20]. Presently, in the period of social welfare legislation, beneficial interpretation has become important tool of interpretation of statute.

In the case of Secretary, H.S.E.B v. Suresh & Ors Etc.[21] it has been held by the SC that the Contract Labour Regulation Act being a beneficial piece of legislation as engrafted in the statute book, ought to receive the widest possible interpretation in regard to the words used and unless words are taken to their maximum amplitude, it would be a violent injustice to the framers of the law.

3)  For Constitution, the basic spirit in form of social justice, equity fraternity etc. should run throughout the interpretation[22] and the interpretation of the Constitutional provisions should be harmonious and liberal;

In the Case of Menaka Gandhi v. Union of India[23], the Supreme Court widened the protection of life and liberty contemplated by Article 21 of the Constitution. The Court ruled that the mere existence of an enabling law was not enough to restrain personal liberty. Such a law must also be just, fair and reasonable. This wider interpretation ensured inclusion of many rights under Article 21.

4) For Taxing Statute, Statutes imposing taxes or monetary burdens are to strictly construe. The logic behind this principle is that imposition of taxes is also a kind of imposition of penalty which can only be imposed if the language of the statute clearly says so; [24] in many instances, liberal or beneficial interpretation has an important role to play in taxing statute’s interpretation.

In the case of, Calcutta Jute Manufacturing Co. v Commercial Tax officer[25] the Supreme Court held that in case of interpreting a taxing statute, one has to look into what is clearly stated. There is no room of searching the intentions, presumptions.

Apart from above brief submissions on interpretation of different statutes, many types of Internal and External aids are used for the purpose of interpretation of statute. The term internal aid is defined as interpretation of statute with those means which are found within the text of the statutes.[26] For example:Preambles, Definitional sections and clauses, Provisos, Explanations etc.

A concise fact about some of these aids is as below:

Preamble: It is considered as a part of statute[27] and key source to open the mind of interpreters[28]. It expresses the scope and object of the Act in a comprehensive manner.

Title: These are of two types:

1. Short Title: It merely identifies the enactment.

2.  Long Title: It describes the enactment.

For example, Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 is a short title and the long title is an Act to make provisions for the prevention of adulteration of food.

Headings: They are prefixed to sections and treated as Preamble for the section and in case of ambiguity in the section; such headings can be looked into.

Marginal notes: These notes applied to the section cannot be used for interpreting the section. However, when words are ambiguous, marginal notes are relevant factor to be taken into consideration while interpreting the ambit of the section.[29] However with respect to Constitution, marginal notes appended to the Articles have been made use of in interpreting the articles.

Definition: When a word is defined as having a particular meaning in the enactment, it is that meaning alone which must be given to it in interpreting the said section of Act unless there be anything repugnant in the context. When the definition starts with the term “mean” such and such, the definition is prima facierestrictive and exhaustive and it restricts the meaning of the word to that given in the definition section. But where the definition starts with the term “include” such and such the definition is prima facieextensive. Again when the word is defined as “means” and includes such and such, the definition would be exhaustive.

Provisos: The purpose of the proviso is to qualify or create an exception to what is in the enactment. It is a fundamental rule of construction that a proviso must be considered with relation to the principal matter to which it stands as a proviso. Therefore, it is to be interpreted harmoniously with the main enactment.[30]

Explanations: The purpose of an Explanation is to understand the Act in the light of the Explanation. It does not ordinarily enlarge the scope of the original section, which it explains, but only makes the meaning clear beyond dispute. It must be read so as to harmonize with and clear up any ambiguity in the main section.[31]

With respect to instances of external aids, these are those factors which are external to the text of the statute but are of great help.[32] These aids are basically to refer examples out of the statutory presentation. These referral is to ascertain the actual position or meaning in a particular situation.

For example: Dictionary, Use of foreign decisions, consolidating statute & Previous laws, works of prominent authors, legislative debates etc.

Instead of having individual outlook regarding each aid, it is better to understand that application of these external aids are useful only in those instances where either legislative intent or meaning of the word is not clear. Even in the same line, the history of legislation which usually denotes the course of events which give rise to enactments can also be referred to understand the subject matter.

Apart from use of these aids, application of certain doctrines and rules in statutory interpretation is of great relevance which has been explained as below:

Statute must be read as whole in its context.

This one is the very first rule to start with the interpretation of Statute (as even been mentioned in historical perspective) in Indian Context. It has been rightly defined in the case of Reserve Bank of Indiav. Peerless General Finance and Investment Company limited[33] that  

The art of interpretation depend on the text and the context. These both are the bases of interpretation in Indian jurisdiction. One may well say if the text is the texture, context is what gives the color. Neither can be ignored. Both are important. That interpretation is best which makes the textual interpretation match the contextual. A statute is best interpreted when we know why it was enacted. With this knowledge, the statute must be read, first as a whole and then section by section, clause by clause, phrase by phrase and word by word. If a statute is looked at, in the context of its enactment, with the glasses of the statute- maker, provided by such context, its scheme, the sections, clauses, phrases and words may take color and appear different than when the statute is looked at without the glasses provided by the context. With these glasses we must look at the Act as a whole and discover what each section, each clause, each phrase and each word is meant and designed to say as to fit into the scheme of the entire Act. No part of a statute and no word of a statute can be interpreted in isolation. Statutes have to be interpreted so that every word has a place and everything is in its place.

Moreover, it has been stated in the case of State of W.B. v. Union of India[34] that the court must ascertain the intention of the Legislature by directing its attention not merely to the clause to be construed but to the entire statute; it must compare the clause with the other parts of the law, and the setting in which the clause to be interpreted occurs.

In light of this observation of Hon’ble Supreme Court, reading/ interpretation of statute is usually being done in light of following rules.

Statute is Effective and Workable

The Courts while pronouncing upon the constitutionality must prefer an interpretation which keeps the statute within the competence of the Legislature. The importance of the rule of ut res magis valeat quam pereaf has an effective application in this regard. The importance of this rule lay in the fact that courts must lean against an interpretation which reduces a statute to a nullity.[35] Here, it is important to analyze that in Indian Context, there is hardly any example where a statute have been declared void for sheer vagueness[36], although theoretically it may be possible to reach such a conclusion in case of absolute intractability of the language used or when the language is absolutely meaningless[37] but application of this pattern of interpretation with the following list of rules prevent redundancy of a statute.

This principle has further been defined by the Court itself as if the choice is between two interpretations, the narrower of which would fail to achieve the manifest purpose of the legislation, we should avoid an interpretation which would reduce the legislation to futility and should rather accept the bolder interpretation based on the view that Parliament would legislate only for the purpose of bringing about an effective result.[38] At last, Statute should be interpreted as effective as workable as is possible while lining with following rules.

Rule of literal interpretation 

The literal rule of interpretation really means that there should be no interpretation. In other words, we should read the statute as it is, without distorting or twisting its language. [39] This rule is the most widely used Rule of Interpretation for the statutes to ascertain the legislative intention behind the framing of the enactment.

The rule governs and regulates the meaning of the law in as much as the rule provides that the meaning has to be ascertained from the text of the law itself. In M/s. Hiralal Ratanlal v. STO[40], this Court observed that

In interpreting a statutory provision the first and foremost rule of interpretation is the literally construction. All that the Court has to see at the very outset is what does the provision say. If the provision is unambiguous and if from the provision the legislative intent is clear, the Court need not call into aid the other rules of construction of statutes. The other rules of construction are called into aid only when the legislative intent is not clear.

Moreover, it is been regularly held by Hon’ble Supreme Court of India that one of the basic principles of interpretation of Statutes is to construe the words according to their plain, literal and grammatical meaning. If this principle is contrary to, or inconsistent with, any express intention or declared purpose of the Statute, or if it would involve any absurdity, repugnancy or inconsistency, the grammatical sense must then be modified, extended or abridged, so far as to avoid such an inconvenience, but no further. The onus of showing that the words do not mean what they say lies heavily on the party who alleges it.[41]

The departure from this rule is allowed in few cases and in those cases where following rules supplement the literal rule of interpretation. This departure has beautifully been stated by the court in the following words:

When the astuteness of the legislature results in manifest ludicrousness or discrimination the courts have wide powers to substitute their own astuteness.

The substitution of astuteness is been done with the appliance of following rules in the requisite state of affairs.

Doctrine of ‘reading down’ 

The application of doctrine of reading down is done where a legal provision; read literally, seems to offend the Constitutional provisions concerning fundamental rights or in case of other statutory enactment, it is found to be outside the competence of the particular Legislature.[42] This doctrine has application if the statute is silent, ambiguous or allows more than one interpretation. In the case ofMaharao Saheb Shri Bhim Singhji v. Union of India[43] Krishna Iyer, J. held that

Reading down meanings of words with loose lexical amplitude is permissible as part of the judicial process. To sustain a law by interpretation is the rule. Courts can and must interpret words and read their meanings so that public good is promoted and power misuse is interdicted.

This doctrine is basically evolved in line of doctrine of purposive construction of Statute which has been discussed in detail in the following.

Mischief rule or Hyden’s Rule /Doctrine of Purposive Interpretation/Rule of Beneficial Interpretation

The Mischief Rule in Heydon’s case decided in the year 1589 has now acquired the status of a classic rule and is applied very widely in the countries wherein the British common law has taken its roots.[44]Every enactment has a purpose, every enactment is enacted for the benefit of someone and every enactment has mischief to take care of. 

Such rule simply work on the principle that legislature enacts numbers of laws for some definite reason and interpretation of these legislations should be made in such a way that the basic reasons for which law is enacted should get compliance. Thus, law should be interpreted in such a way so that it suppresses the mischief, if any and advances the requisite remedy. It further requires the Court to interpret legislative provision in such a manner, which ensures the proper exercise of a right by the person on whom such right is given and in consonance with the object with which a provision is enacted.

This rule carries an importance in instances of ambiguity. Thus where a law is clear and can have only one meaning, this rule generally has no application.[45] But in some instances, where the customary meaning of the language falls short of the basic purpose of the enactment, a more comprehensive meaning may be ascribed to the words used, provided they are fairly inclined of it.

For the application of this rule four things are considered in the first instance[46] –

i) What was the common law before the making of the Act?

ii) What was the Mischief and defect for which law did not provide?

iii) What remedy are available to cure damages?

iv) The true reason of the remedy.

Applicability of this rule, resolves difficulty of interpretation in number of instances. For example, if the object of any enactment is public safety, then its working must be interpreted widely to give effect to that object. Thus in the case of Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 the main object being provision of compensation to workmen, it was held that the Act ought to be so interpreted, as far as possible, so as to give effect to its primary provisions.

Apart from this, there are other rules as well which are equally important for the purpose of statutory interpretation. So Denning L.J.[47] once said

“It would be idle to expect every statutory provision to be drafted with divine prescience and perfect clarity”.[48]

In backdrop of this statement, it is to keep in focus the importance of other rules of interpretation simultaneously.  

Rule of harmonious construction 

This rule is the final and the most important rule of interpretation. As submitted earlier, Judicial believe is every statute with every provision has some reason of enactment so the courts while interpreting must try to avoid a conflict between the provisions of Statute. It may be possible that different sections may appear to mean contrary to each other or contradicting each other.  Under such circumstances, an attempt should be made to reconcile the provisions of the Act and an effect should be made to give the effect to both the apparently contradictory provisions.  Thereby a head on clash between sections of the Act is avoided.  This is known as harmonious construction. The rule of reconciliation on the Entries was propounded for the first time in the case of In re C.P. and Bera Act[49].

Along with these rules, there are certain maxims and terms whose expressions play an important role in interpretation of statute. A brief discussion about some of these maxims as well as terms is as follows.


Generalia Specialibus Non Derogant: 

This expression specifies that general words or things do not derogate from the special. The Courts have held that this expression is to mean that when there is a conflict between a general and special provision, the latter shall prevail. This has been held in number of case laws and out of which one of the case laws isUOI v. Indian Fisheries (P.) Ltd.[50]

Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius

This expression specifies that express mention of one thing implies exclusion of other. For example, a statute granting certain rights to municipal employees, fire office employees, government hospital employee would be interpreted to exclude other public employees not enumerated in the legislation.

Ejusdem Generis

This expression specifies that all the general word contain in the statute may be interpreted with reference to the predecessor matter and the interpretation may be narrowed down by treating them as applying to the things of the same kind as those previously mentioned.

The literal meaning of the term ejusdem generic is “of the same kind or species”.[51] The rule requires that where specific words are all of one genius, meaning of the general words shall be restricted to that genus only unless there is something to show that a wider meaning was intended.

For example, If a man tells his wife to go to the market to buy vegetables, fruits, groceries and anything else she needs, the ‘anything else’ would be taken to mean food and grocery items due to the rule ofejusdem generis and not cosmetics or other feminine accessories.

This rule has its application when the following conditions are satisfied:

a. The statute contains an enumeration of specific words;

b. The members of enumeration constitute a class or category;

c. The class is not exhausted by the enumeration;

d. The general term follows the enumeration;

e. There is no indication of different legislative intent.

Noscitur a Sociis

Noscere means to ‘know’ and sociis means ‘association’. Thus, Noscitur a Sociis means knowing from association. Thus, under the doctrine of “noscitur a sociis” the questionable meaning of a word or doubtful words can be derived from its association with other words within the context of the phrase.[52]This means that where two or more words which are susceptible of analogous meaning are coupled together they are understood to be used in their cognate sense. They take, as it were, their color from each other, the meaning of the more general being restricted to a sense analogous to that of the less general.[53]

This doctrine is broader than the doctrine of ejusdem generis because this rule puts the words in context of the whole phrase and not just in relation to the nearby words.

In State of Assam v. R Muhammad[54], Supreme Court made use of this rule to arrive at the meaning of the word “posting” used in Article 233 (1) of the Constitution. It held that since the word “posting” occurs in association with the words “appointment” and “promotion”, it took its color from them and so it means assignment of an appointee or a promotee to a position" and does not mean transfer of a person from one station to another.

Apart from these expressions, there are certain words such as notwithstanding, subject to etc. whose presence in the statute requires specific interpretation. 

The word notwithstanding anything contained characterizes the non obstante clause.[55] The inclusion of this word means, the specific clause has an overriding effect over the other clauses and in case of any conflict between the non obstante clause and another provision, it is the non obstante clause which will prevail.

On the other word, the word subject to characterize the opposite of a non obstante clause. This word conveys the idea of a provision yielding place to another provision or provisions to which it is made ‘subject to’.

The use of or in a statute means disjunctive and use of and is normally conjunctive and a departure from the same is not available unless the very aim and purpose of the Statute so requires.  

Apart from these words, it is very important to know about the nature of the statute or provision. This aspect is easy to understand when we know the provision stated or statute enacted is a mandatory or directory enactment. As such, no general rule can be laid down to reach at the conclusion whether any particular provision on a statue is mandatory or directory. The conclusion, in each case lies upon the actual word used and also upon the intention of the legislatures for enactment. In the same context, use of words such as ‘may’, ‘shall’ and ‘must’ can play an important part.

The use of word may signifies permission and implies that authority has discretion but in the case ofState of Uttar Pradesh v. Jogendra Singh[56], it has been held by the Hon’ble Supreme Court that there is no doubt that the word ‘may’ generally does not mean ‘must’ or ‘shall’. But it is well settled that the word ‘may’ is capable of meaning ‘must’ or ‘shall’ in the light of the context. It is also clear that where a discretion is conferred upon a public authority coupled with an obligation, the word ‘may’ which denotes discretion should be construed to mean a command.

The use of word must undoubtedly stand for mandatory enactment but with respect to use of shallposition is as same of ‘may’. It signifies mandate but it is well settled principle that use of the word ‘shall’ does not always mean that the enactment is obligatory or mandatory. It depends upon the context in which the word ‘shall’ occurs and the other relevant circumstances.

Apart from textual interpretation, it is always important to know that in general, application of statute is prospectively which means applying the laws in future or at least from the date of commencement of the statute but in some instances, it may have retrospective (back date) application also. The following part deals with retrospective application and rule of interpretation.



In Indian jurisdiction, it is of general believe that a new statute should affect the future not the past because in general, first and strong presumptions of any law enacted for the first time or amending the enacted law, is its prospective applicability.[57] The power of retrospective legislation does exist which isnot only subject to the question of competence but is also subject to several judicially recognized limitation.[58] In order to determine the validity of retrospective law the court has to take into account all relevant surrounding facts and circumstances.[59] It has been held that a law will be retrospective only if the words used must expressly provide or necessarily imply retrospective operation.[60]  Retrospective operation is not taken to be intended unless that intention is manifested by express words or necessary implication; there is a subordinate rule to the effect that a statute or a section in it is not to be construed so as to have larger retrospective operation than its language renders necessary.[61]

In the case of, Hitendra Vishnu Thakur v. State of Maharashtra[62], the Indian position with respect to retroactivity operation is summarized in the following points:

1) A statute which affects substantive rights is presumed to be prospective in operation unless made retrospective, either expressly or by necessary intendment, whereas a statute which merely affects procedure, unless such a construction is textually impossible, is presumed to be retrospective in its application, should not be given an extended meaning and should be strictly confined to its clearly defined limits;

2) Law relating to forum and limitation is procedural in nature and a procedural statute should not generally speaking be applied retrospectively where the result would be to create new disabilities or obligations or to impose new duties in respect of transactions already accomplished;

3) Law relating to right of action and right of appeal even though remedial is substantive in nature. Every litigant has a vested right in substantive law but no such right exists in procedural law. So, a statute which not only changes the procedure but also creates new rights and liabilities shall be construed to be prospective in operation, unless otherwise provided, either expressly or by necessary implication.

In other words close attention must be paid to the language of the statutory provision for determining the scope of the retroactivity intended by Parliament. Such expressions are manifested for Constitutional and Taxing statute but with respect to penal statute, a strict prohibition on retrospective application is imposed. A general canon of interpretation of penal legislation does not permit penal provisions to have retrospective effect. The reasons for the same are simple.

Firstly, the element of mens rea being a principal ingredient for the proof of guilt is not possible to prove. Further to punish a person for his act which was then not an offence under a subsequent legislation which came in to operation after the said act will per se unconscionable besides amounting to negation of fair play and justice.

Secondly, Article.20 (1) provides the necessary protection against retrospective application of penal statute.[63]

But, in case of reduction in punishment by the subsequent enactment, the rule of beneficial construction requires that ex-post facto law should be applied to reduce the rigorous sentence of the previous law on the same subject. Such a law is not affected by Article 20(1) and other reasons for non application of retrospective application will also not be applicable.

After discussing various important aspects of interpretation, it is equally important to discuss the on going controversy with respect to widened scope of statutory interpretation by the judiciary. The general arguments of the debate along with judicial stand are as follows:


In the modern decade, it has generally argued that the extent of statutory interpretation has been greatly widened by the Indian judiciary in the light of public interest litigation, in its endeavor of protecting individual rights and social justice, judiciary has expanded its functioning from a mere interpreter of law or adjudicator of disputes to law maker for the state.  

In the case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan[64] the Court stated that it is the duty of the executive to fill the vacuum by executive orders because its field is coterminous with that of the legislature. In the absence of any enacted law or an executive order, the judiciary must step in, in exercise of its constitutional obligations under Article 32 to provide a solution till the legislature acts to perform its role by enacting a proper legislation to cover the field. Thus the court issued guidelines for enforcement of basic human rights and guarantee against sexual harassment to be observed in all work places until suitable legislation is enacted to occupy the field. In lieu of this observation, in numerous instances, judiciary has ordered some sort of legislative directions. Such judicial directions on regular basis boost the very question of limit/boundary of statutory interpretation and even led to direct attack by jurists and legislatures upon the ambit of judicial interpretation.[65] Some political leaders, including the Prime Minister, had argued that the apex court overstepped the limits of judicial powers. 

In behest of all such arguments, this question itself was entertained by court in the case of University of Kerala v. Council for Principles of College[66] where the Court stated that there is a broad separation of power between the three organs and hence one organ of the State should not encroach into the domain of another organ. The judiciary should not therefore seek to perform legislative or executive functions. The Court expressed doubts on the judgment of Vishaka Case and raised the concerns as to whether the Court can convert itself into an interim Parliament and make law until Parliament makes a law on the subject.

In lieu of this observation by the Court itself, it is submitted that for smooth and proper governance of the country, it is necessary to study the Indian Constitution between the lines. Judgments of the courts should be based on constitutional principles and not on the personal or political views of judiciary. It should be ensured at every cost that doctrine of separation as enshrined in Indian Constitution should prevail. For Judiciary, it is very important to know the limits of its wings otherwise legislatures will cut these wings and judiciary will leave with nothing to fly. It has to be firm on the stand that if the legislature has decided to enact a particular law then the judiciary must not abrogation such enactment depending on its whims and fancies.

A simple restrain or correctives on matters of political import with due chariness by judiciary will ensure overwhelming and peaceful operation of enactments which have been enacted for some definite purposes.


At last, I would like to conclude by saying that art of interpretation is a remarkable tool to paint citizens’ life with numerous beneficial colors of joy, peace and happiness. Indian judiciary has wonderfully endorsed Indian Statutes with a manner which is fair, reasonable and in conformity with the purpose for which the law is framed. Here, it is not to suggest that judicial interpretation has never been erroneous or never resulted into absurdity but is to simply indicate that to make sense out of miserably worded statute, where the purpose of the statute was apparent, judicial violence with the language has paid rich dividends for the country.  In light of which, I can simply hope that statutory endorsement by judiciary will continue because a statute can never be exhaustive and legislative incapacity to speculate all the possible situations that may arise in a future and in myriad circumstances will always leave a wide scope for interpretation. This gap will ensure that the interpretation by judiciary in the future will yield fruit bearing results for all.

But, I would also like to focus upon that this special art of interpretation having many brushes should be prevented to indulge in any sort of controversy. This art should not be used to make painting boards (to make law); the real use of this art lies in painting a board (in interpretation) which it can very well do with the brushes (rules/doctrines of interpretation) which has been the prime focused in the whole submission.

Lastly, the whole interpretative mechanism discussed in the present essay entry is a key to conveying difficult and technical task of understanding and reading between the lines of statute into an easy one.

[1]Protection of life and personal liberty: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law (Court interpreted procedure needs to be just)

[2]Right to Livelihood, Right to have pollution free environment and many other such rights has been evolved as part of right to life under Article 21.

[3]The right of a party to appear and be heard before a court.

[4]Farlex, ‘Statute’ (The Free Dictionary) <> accessed on 21 August 2012.

[5]Avtar Singh, Introduction to Interpretation of Statute (2nd ed., LexisNexis Butterworths, Nagpur 2007) 5

[6]Wharton’s Concise Law Dictionary (15th ed., Universal Law Publishing Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi 2009) 551.

[7]Deepak Jain, ‘Interpretation of Statute: A treaties’ (April 2010) AIFTP Journal.

[8]It represents the philosophical portion of the ancient scriptures of India.

[9]Satyanarayan Venktaraman ‘Upangas’ (Vedavichara) on 22 August 2012


[11]M.K. Venkatarama Iyer, ‘Contribution of Bharati Tirtha and Vidyaranya to Development of Advaitic Thought’ (Srisharada) accessed on 22 August 2012.


[13]Supra note 9.

[14]Supra note 11.

[15]Markandey Katju is the Chairman, Press Council of India. He was formerly a Judge of the Supreme Court of India.

[16](2006)12 SCC 583

[17]Supra note 5 at 10.

[18]M. Narayanan Nambiar v. State of Kerala, 1963 SCR Supl. (2) 724

[19]1996 (6) SCC 409.

[20]Bajaj Tempo Ltd. v. CIT, 196 ITR 188 (SC)

[21]1999 3 SCC 601

[22]Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, AIR 1973 SC 1461

[23]AIR 1978 SC 597

[24]CIT v. T.V. Sundaram Iyyengar (1975) 101 ITR 764 (SC)

[25]AIR 1997 SC 2920

[26]Law Commission , A continuum on the General Clauses Act, 1897 with special reference to the admissibility and codification of external aids to interpretation of  statutes {Law Comm. No. 6(3)(79)/2002-LC(LS), 2002}para 8.

[27]Supra note 11.

[28]In Re: The Berubari Union Case, AIR 1960 SC 845

[29]Shree Sajjan Mills Ltd. v. CIT, (1985) 156 ITR 585 (SC)

[30]Commissioner of Income Tax v.  Indo– Mercantile Bank Ltd, (36 ITR 1) SC

[31]Bihar Cooperative Development and Care Marketing Union Ltd. v. Bank of Bihar Ltd., AIR 1967 SC 389


[33]AIR 1987 SC 1023

[34]AIR 1963 SC 1241

[35]Union of India v. R. Vasudeva Murthy, (2010) 9 SCC 30

[36]Tinsukhia Electric Supply Co. Ltd. v. State of Assam, AIR 1990 SC 123

[37]Sreekumar v. State of Kerala, 1995 (4) SCC 611

[38]The Executive Engineer v. M/S Sri Seetaram Rice Mill, 2011 STPL(Web) 942 SC

[39]B. Premanand v. Mohan Koikal, (2011) 4 SCC 266

[40]AIR 1973 SC 1034

[41]State of Rajasthan v. Babu Ram AIR 2007 SC 2018

[42]K P C Rao, ‘The Income Tax Act and the Constitution of India (kpcraoindia, 6 March 2011) <> accessed on 31 August 2012

[43]AIR 1981 SC 234

[44]G.P. Singh, ‘Principles of Statutory Interpretation’ (9th ed., LexisNexis Butterworths Wadhwa, Nagpur 2004) 133

[45]Bengal  Immunity Co. Ltd. v. State of Bihar, (1955) 2 SCR 603

[46]CIT v. Sodra Devi, (1957) 32 ITR 615 (SC)

[47]Alfred Thompson “Tom” Denning was a British lawyer and judge.

[48]H. P. Ranina, ‘Putting life into the letter of law’ The Hindu (New Delhi, 18 February 2006) 7

[49]AIR 1939 FC 1

[50]AIR 1966 SC 35

[51]The Printers House Private Ltd. v. Misri Lal Dalip Singh and Ors.,  AIR 1970 P H 1

[52]Vovvijay, Noscitur a Sociis (vovvijay.blogspot, 1 March 2011) <> accessed on 1 September 2011.

[53]Rainbow Steels Ltd. And Anr v. Commissioner of Sales Tax, 1981 SCR (2) 727

[54]AIR 1967 SC 903

[55]State of Sikkim v. Surendra Prasad Sharma, 1994 SCC (5) 282

[56]1964 SCR (2) 197

[57]Keshvan Madhavan Memon v. State of Bombay, 1951 SCR 228

[58]National Agricultural Co-operative Marketing Federation of India v. Union of India, (2003) 260 ITR 548 (SC).

[59]Jawaharmal v. State of Rajasthan, AIR 1966 SC 764. 

[60]J.P. Jani, ITO v. Induprasad Devshanker Bhatt, (1969) 72 ITR 595 (SC).

[61]S.L. Srinivasa Jute Twine Mills (P) Ltd. v. Union of India & Anr., 2006 (2) SCC 740

[62](1994) 4 SCC 60

[63]No person shall be convicted of any offence except for violation of the law in force at the time of the commission of the act charged as an offence, nor be subjected to a penalty greater than that which might have been inflicted under the law in force at the time of the commission of the offence

[64]AIR 1997 SC 3011

[65]Eminent jurist of the Country pleaded for exercising self-restraint by the judiciary in view of its inherent limitations and constitutional flaws.

[66](2009) 16 SCC 712


Piyush Khanna 
on 29 April 2013
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