It is to be regretted that the subject of interpretation of law has not in modern times received that decree of attention which it deserves. The rules of Interpretation may well rank as an important branch of what is called the adjective law. The part of that these rules play in the administration of justice by no means less important than the rules of procedure or the rules of evidence. Primarily the Court of law have to deal with three things:

(1) Law dealing with rights & liabilities;

(2) Facts which establish such rights and liabilities in particular case, and

(3)  The machinery of administering the law and of ascertaining facts.

Leaving the last matter apart, as being rather of an incidental character, the main duty of the court is, to deal with the substantive law, with which they are supplied by the State, and with the facts, with which the parties propose to supply them. To assist them in respect of the latter duty, there is law of Evidence. To assist them as regards of the former duty, there are the rules of interpretation. Thus the rules of interpretation stand side by side with the rules of evidence.

When we talk about the subject of interpretation, one of the oldest rule comes in our mind called the “Literal Rule of Interpretation”. Under this rule of interpretation the Courts interpret the statutes in a literal and ordinary sense. The court interpret the words of the statute in a way that is used commonly by all. It is incumbent on the court to use the grammatical meaning. The statutes should be construed in such a manner as though there is no other meaning except the literal meaning.

No doubt, ordinarily the literal rule should be applied while interpreting a statute or statutory rule, but the literal rule is not always the only rule of interpretation of a provision in a statute, and in exceptional cases the literal rule can be departed from. Constitutional Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the case of R.L. Arora Vs. State of Uttar Pradesh & Ors. (1964 AIR 1230) has observed:

“a literal interpretation is not always the only interpretation of a provision in a statute, and the court has to look at the setting in which the words are used and the circumstances in which the law came to be passed to decide whether there is something implicit behind the words actually used which would control the literal meaning of the words used in a provision of the statute. It is permissible to control the wide language used in a statute if that is possible by the setting in which the words are used and the intention of the law-making body which may be apparent from the circumstances in which the particular provision came to be made.”

Hence it follows that to interpret a statute one has to sometimes consider the context in which it has been made and the purpose and object which it seeks to achieve. A too literal interpretation may sometimes frustrate the very object of the statute, and such an approach should be eschewed by the Court. In this article the authors are discussing the importance and value of interpretation of statute with its intention also known popularly as “Purposive Construction”.

Francis Bennion in his Statutory Interpretation Second Edn., has defined, a purposive construction of an enactment is one which gives effect to the legislative purpose by-

(a) following the literal meaning of the enactment where that meaning is in accordance with the legislative purpose (in this Code called a purposive-and-literal construction), or

(b) applying a strained meaning where the literal meaning is not in accordance with the legislative purpose (in the Code called a purposive and strained construction).

Purposive Construction is also defined our traditional rules of principal called “Mimansa Rules of Interpretation”.

It may be mentioned that the Mimansa Rules of Interpretation were created for resolving the practical difficulties in performing the Vedic yagyas. The rules for performing the various yagyas were given in books called Brahmanas e.g. Shatapath Brahman, Aitareya Brahman, Taitereya Brahman, etc. There were many ambiguities, conflicts, incongruities, ellipses etc. in the Brahmana texts, and hence principles of interpretation had to be created for this purpose. Thus the Mimansa principles were originally created for religious purposes, but they were so rational and logical that subsequently they began to be used in law, grammar, logic, philosophy etc., that is, they became of universal application.

Jaimini in Sutra 6: 3: 9 states:

When there is a conflict between the purpose and the material, the purpose is prevail, because in the absence of the prescribed material a substitute can be used, for the material is subordinate to the purpose.

To explain this it may be mentioned that the Brahmanas state that the prescribed Yupa (sacrificial post for tying the sacrificial animal) must be made of Khadir Wood. However, Khadir wood is weak while the animal tied may be restive. Hence, the Mimansa principle (stated above) permits that the Yupa can be made of Khadar wood which is strong. Now this substitution is being made despite the fact that the prescribed wood is Khadir, but this prescription is only subordinate or accessory to the performance of the yagya, which is the main object. Hence, if it comes in the way of the yagya being performed, it can be modified or substituted.

In the Mimansa system, the literal rule of interpretation is called the Shruti (or Abhida) principle, and ordinarily it is this principle which is to be applied when interpreting a text. However, there are exceptional situations when we have to depart from the literal rule and then certain other principles have to be resorted to e.g. (1) the Linga (also called Lakshana) principle or the suggestive power of words or expressions, (2) the Vakya principle or syntactical arrangement , (3) the Prakarana principle, which permits construction by referring to other texts in order to make the meaning clear, (4) the Sthana (position) principle which means the relative position of one text with reference to another, (5) the Samakhya (name) principle which means the connection between different passages by the indication accorded by the derivative words of a compound name.

Maxwell in his book of “Interpretation of Statute” has stated:

That a thing which is within the letter of a statute is not within the statute unless it be also within the real intention of the Legislature, and the words, if sufficiently flexible, must be construed in the sense which, if less correct grammatically, is more in harmony within that intention. Language is rarely so free from ambiguity as to be incapable of being used in more than one sense; and to adhere rigidly to its literal and primary meaning in all cases would be to miss its real meaning in many. If a literal meaning had been given to the laws which forbade a layman to “lay hands” on a priest, and punished all who drew blood in the street, the layman who wounded a priest with a weapon would not have fallen within the prohibition, and the surgeon who bled a person to save his life, would have been liable to punishment. On a literal construction of his promise, Mohammed II.’s sawing the Venetian Governor’s body in two, was no breach of his engagement to spare his head; nor Tamerlane’s burying alive a garrison, a violation of his pledge to shed no blood.

Thus, in both systems of interpretation, the Mimansa system as well as Maxwell’s system, it is emphasized that the intention of a statute has often to be seen to properly interpret it, and it is not that the Court can never depart from the literal rule of interpretation. It all depends on the context, the subject-matter, the purpose for which the provision was made, etc.

Our courts has many time used the Purposive Construction to interpret the statute, for example in the case titled “Surjit Sing Vs. Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd.” decided on 21.04.2008, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had used the purposive construction to interpret the Rule 443 of Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951 and held “Telephone lines in the name of the person can be disconnected for non-payment of the dues in connection with the line in the name of his dependent.


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