Meaning, Concept and Purpose of Statutory Interpretation

Meaning, concept and purpose of Statutory Interpretation

The term interpretation is defined as the action of explaining the meaning of something, in the illustrious words of Guido Calabresi he has revealed three-step approach to interpreting statute. He said judges should first focus on the precise meaning of a statute’s language before turning to the historic context that gave rise to the legislation. According to him the legislative history can be fraudulent, quoting the words of Abraham Lincoln he sated that “People say that what was just was in the context of the time”. Another illustration as talked by Judge Frank Easterbrook of U.S Court, was conferring a duty on the judges while they indulge in statutory interpretation saying that the judges should remain loyal to the law making body and the statue must understand as its plain meaning “the more thinking judges do about statutes, the more they complex it”

Above paragraph though contradicting but gives a brief introduction to the concept and purpose of the Statutory Interpretation furthermore in a narrow sense it denotes the process by which judges ascertain the meaning of words phrases which the legislature has embodied in a Statute. Thus, it is the most important coherent aspect of legal understanding which is sadly neglected, even where Statute law as a whole is taken more seriously this is often either at the theoretical level as jurisprudence or interrelated with other legal laws.

How Important Statutory Interpretation have become

The Statutory Interpretation as defined by Justice Kirby, that construction of statute is the single most important aspect of legal and Judicial system. To achieve the ultimate aim of Statutory Interpretation there are several internal and external guided rules. The canon of rules are never referred to in a case specifically but it is common to see another horizon of Statutory Interpretation taken up by Courts, as in the judgement by Supreme Court in the case of Naz Foundation vs Government of NCT[1] where the courts re-defined the term Natural and Unnatural and expanded the scope of section 377 by just not conceiving it on functional bases.

Whereas stated by Lord Bingham in his book[2] “the courts task within the permissible bounds of interpretation is to give effect to parliament purpose so the controversial provision should be read in the context of the statute as a whole, and the statute as a whole should be read in the historical context of the situation which led to its enactment”

Certainly it isn’t easy to pin down what is the present approach of Judiciary, although said in 1956 in the words of Lord Steyne that some judicial utterance can be cited in support of almost any proposition relevant to the problems of Statutory Interpretation, however it is clear today that our judges have moved from an old literal to a Modern Contextual and Purposive approach. As defined by the Supreme Court in the case of Subramanian Swamy vs. Raju[3], stated that the court must read the legislation literally in the first instance, if such reading and understanding the vice of unconstitutionality is attracted, the court must explore whether there has been an unintended legislative omission[4].

The process of modern approach also confers the power in the hand of the Judiciary that the court can amend the words of the statute and that’s been labeled as rectifying construction. This idea of conferring interpretation may further be regarded as embracing the so-called principle of legality that the statue should be read down to avoid the removal of fundamental common law or constitutional rights. In the case of Shri Dilip K. Basu v. State of West Bengal[5] where various guidelines made by the Supreme Court, with reference to the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 which uses the words ‘a state government may constitute a body to be known as the human rights commission’. The issue was, that some of the defaulting States argued the discretionary versus mandatory theory. The division bench in Bachahan Devi v. Nagar Nigam Gorakhpur[6] summarized the position as “it is well settled that the use of word may in a statutory provision would not by itself show that the provision is directory in nature. In some cases, the legislature may use the word may as a matter of conventional courtesy and yet intend a mandatory force[7]

Similarly, in the Interpretation of section 304 B of the IPC the Court stated that penal law regarding women have witnessed diverse interpretation. Traditional rule tries to stick to the strict interpretation of penal law while dowry laws being social welfare provision have also witnessed Purposive Interpretation.

The aim of Judiciary seeking to give effect to the parliamentary legislation can be seen from number of cases and once such case is of Jivendra Kumar v. Jaidrath Singh[8], in the present case the court not only addressed the issue but also corrected two Precedents which gave strict interpretation to Dowry provision and declared that demand of dowry is different from commercial demand or demand for domestic needs.

Considering the present pandemic in the matter of the Contractual obligation, as the Contract Act 1872 only include the provision of Act of God but, in the case of Halliburton offshore Service v. Vedanta ltd[9]  the court accepted the doctrine of ‘Force Majeure’ and stopped Vedanta from invoking contractual obligation due to the current situation. Similarly Justice F. Nariman and Justice Chelameswar interpreted that sec.66A did not have procedural safeguard, and its weakness lay in the fact that it had created an offence on the bases of undefined action such as inconvenience, danger, obstruction and insult, which do not fall among the exceptions granted under Article 19 of the Constitution of India[10]. Thus, the advantage of this switch of focus is that it helps to clarify that what ultimately matters is the judicial analysis at the time when dispute arises.


[1] 160 Delhi Law Times 277

[2] Bingham Tom, The Rule of Law

[3] 2014 SCC 390

[4] Majority view in Delhi Transport Corp. vs. D.T.C

[5] 2015 8 SCC 744

[6] 2008, 12 SCC 372

[7] Ld. Para 18

[8]  [(2000) 3 SCC 154]

[9] [2020] SCC online Del 542

[10] Shreya Singhal v. Union of India

Author: Sweksha Beniwal,
vivekananda institute of professional studies 3rd year BA LLB

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