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Explained: Literal Rule of Interpretation

In this article the author has explained the meaning and intricacies surrounding the Literal Rule of Interpretation. The study has been supplemented with Judicial Precedents

Introduction

Laws are often enacted by legal experts under the guidance of experts of different fields and hence, the wordings or phrases used in these laws might cause confusion or result in ambiguity. Interpretation literally means to explain or to understand. The basic purpose of interpretation is to help understand the various statutes and provisions of law.

For dealing with such ambiguity, interpretation of statutes comes into picture.

Definition of Interpretation of Statutes

Salmond gave the definition of interpretation of statutes as follows:

  • Interpretation of statutes is the procedure by which the courts aim to understand the meaning of a legislation through the means of the authoritative forms in which is expressed.

Blackstone also provided for the definition of interpretation of statutes which is as follows:

  • He said that the fairest and most rational method of understanding and interpreting a statute is by exploring the intention of the legislation through the most natural and probable signs.

It can also be said that the Statement of Objects and Reasons and the Preamble at the start of every Statute provides a guideline for the way in which the particular Act should be interpreted.

Importance of interpretation of statutes

Interpretation of statutes is necessary for the following three reasons:

  1. The complexity of Statutes: As mentioned earlier, laws are enacted by individuals who are experts in their particular fields and as a result, the provisions might be complex for a layman to understand. Hence, interpretation is deemed necessary.
  2. Legislative Intent: Sometimes, due to the complex nature of the statute, the legislative intent might be lost and in order to understand the intent of the legislature, it is important to interpret the statutes.
  3. Multifaceted Nature of Language: The problem with the English language is that the same word might have different meanings in different contexts. For example, the word “PLAY” has different meanings in different contexts – “Have you watched the play XYZ?” or “Are the kids playing?” Both the words are the same, however, their meaning is different in both the sentences.

Literal Rule of Interpretation

In order to interpret statutes, the courts use various principles which help them understand the principles. One of the principles is called the “Literal Rule of Interpretation”

The literal rule of interpretation has been termed as the primary rule of interpretation. As the name suggests, the literal rule of interpretation means that the judge literally interprets the statute. It can also be called the plain-meaning rule or the grammatical rule.

Statutes are constructed using the ordinary meaning of language given to the term and the judges are not required to interpret the terms in any other way.

In other words, the provisions have to be read word to word and no other meaning can be given to the statute.

In order to avoid ambiguity, the Act generally has “definitions” mentioned in it. If a particular meaning is given in the definition clause, the particular meaning shall be used and no other meaning.

In the literal rule of interpretation, the courts are required to observe the ordinary and natural meaning of words, interpret the phrase or words as it is. Judges are not required to add words or modify meaning and they must observe the actual intent of the legislature. It is the safest rule of interpretation.

The literal rule of interpretation, in a way, is against the use of intelligence in understanding language. Judges are bound by the literal meaning of the words and cannot use their judicial minds to deviate from it.

Sub Rules under the Literal Rule of Interpretation

  • There are a few sub-rules that are followed in the literal rule of interpretation:
  1. Ejusdem Generis: It literally translates to “of the same kind”. It means to follow the general meaning of word or words of similar kind.
  2. Casus Omissus: It literally means cases omitted. It can also be interpreted as a point which is not provided for by the statute. Where a point is not provided for by the statute, it is governed by case laws.
  3. Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius: It literally means that one thing has been mentioned whereas the other has been left out.

Advantages of Literal Rule of Interpretation:

  1. Literal rule enables layman to understand the issue in hand.
  2. It enables to understand the intent of legislature simply and clearly.
  3. This rule respects the parliamentary supremacy.

Criticisms of Literal Rule of Interpretation:

A major criticism of this rule of interpretation is that the meanings of words might change from time to time and hence the literal interpretation leads to injustice. Misleading precedents may be created due to this.

Some ambiguity might still arise while interpreting due to the use of words like “or”, “and”, “all”.

Another criticism of this rule is that it restricts and bounds the court making it unable to use its judicial mind to deviate from the literal meaning of the terms.

Sometimes, a court might ascertain an absolute absurd meaning which the legislature never intended.

Case Laws on Literal Rule of Interpretation

  1. Maqbool Hussain v State of Bombay [i]: In this case Maqbool, an Indian citizen, upon returning from an international trip brought some gold with him. According to the Sea Customs Act, no Indian citizen was allowed to bring any valuables such as gold and hence, his gold was confiscated. He was then prosecuted under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act, 1947. Maqbool contended that since the gold had already been confiscated, and that was a trial in itself. He cannot be prosecuted under FERA, 1947 as it would amount to double jeopardy. However, the Supreme Court held that confiscation of gold cannot be termed as prosecution and hence it was not a case of double jeopardy according to the strict and literal interpretation of Article 20(2).
  2. Ram Avtar v Assistant Sales Tax Officer[ii]: Under the Central Province and Berar Sales Tax Act, vegetables were tax-free. Ram Avtar contented that pan leaf is also covered under the purview of vegetable according to its dictionary meaning and hence should be tax-free. However, the court said that the dictionary meaning shall be referred to only when there is ambiguity in the provision and there wasn’t any ambiguity, hence the court rejected his plea.
  3. CBI Bank Securities & Fraud Cell v Ramesh Gelli & Ors [iii]: In this case, the Supreme Court held that a managing director or chairman of a private bank will come under the purview of “public officer”.

Conclusion

From the above discussion, it is clear that the literal rule of interpretation is the primary rule of interpretation under which courts interpret statutes and provisions in the literal and ordinary sense without adding any meaning to them and without modifying them. This rule is helpful in cases where there is no ambiguity.

[i] Maqbool Hussain v State of Bombay AIR 1953 SC 325

[ii] Ram Avtar v Assistant Sales Tax Officer 1961 AIR 1325

[iii] Central Bureau of Investigation Bank Securities and Fraud Cell v Ramesh Gelli & Ors AIR 2016

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