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All About Literal Rule of Interpretation

Introduction:

“The essence of law lies in the spirit, not its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it” – Salmond

The term “interpretation” comes from the Latin word “interpretari,” which means “to explain” or “to comprehend.” Every law must be interpreted by the judge in the way that it was intended. The aim of interpretation is to determine what the statute stands for, what the flaw it seeks to correct, and what solution it seeks to promote.[1] The fundamental rule in drafting laws is that the words must be read and interpreted in their literal context. The judges’ first rule is the Literal Rule. Some jurists refer to the literal rule as the grammatical rule.

The plain meaning rule, also known as the literal rule, is one of three rules of statutory construction traditionally applied by English courts.[2] The other two are the “mischief rule” and the “golden rule”.

The literal rule requires a judge to interpret what the law states “actually,” that is, in its plainest form. The meaning of the law-givers is said to be better expressed by the words themselves.[3] The mechanism by which the courts attempt to determine the Legislature’s purpose through the medium of the authoritative form in which it is articulated is known as interpretation or construction.[4] The law must be considered in its entirety under the literal rule of interpretation, and judges cannot go beyond “litera legis.” The literal meaning is a method of determining the statute’s “ratio legis.”

Literal Rule of Interpretation:

The cardinal rule in interpreting statutes is to interpret them literally and grammatically, giving words their usual and natural meaning. The Plain Meaning Rule is another name for this rule. Examining the vocabulary and literal sense of the law is the first and most important step in the interpretation process. The words in the legislation have their very own natural influence, and the structure of an act is determined by how they are written. In the construction of laws and their interpretation, there should be no additions or substitutions of terms. The most important rule is to view words in their natural context. The definitions of the words should be clear in this rule, and only one interpretation can be deduced.

Meaning of Literal Rule of Interpretation:

“In the construction of statutes their words must be interpreted in their ordinary grammatical sense unless there is 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.”– Lord Atkinson[5]

Legislators also provide “definitions” sections within statutes to prevent ambiguity. These sections specifically describe the most relevant words used in the legislation. However, some laws do not have a definitions section at all, or (quite generally) fail to describe a phrase. The plain meaning rule is intended to direct courts when they are faced with a dispute over the meaning of a phrase not specified by the law or a word contained within a definition.

The first and most basic rule of construction is that terms and phrases in technical legislation are assumed to be used in their technical context if they have one, and in their ordinary meaning otherwise, and the second is that phrases and sentences are to be construed according to grammar laws.[6]  A statute’s terms must be granted their ordinary sense prima facie. If the statute’s terms are precise and unambiguous in themselves, nothing more can be done than to explain them in their normal and ordinary context. It is a basic concept of statute creation that the definitions must be read literally.[7] The courts are required to interpret the terms as the legislature intended them to be understood.[8]

Conditions:

  1. A term’s special meaning can be given by statute, which is generally found in the interpretation section.
  2. If the law does not specify otherwise, technical terms are provided their ordinary technical definition.
  3. By implication, no words would be added.
  4. In the course of time, the sense of words changes.
  5. It’s important to note that the meaning of words is determined by their context.

It was once observed by Lord Diplock “where the meaning of the statutory words is plain and unambiguous it is not then for the judges to invent the fancied ambiguities as an excuse for failing to give effect to its plain meaning because they consider the consequences for doing so would be inexpedient or even unjust or immoral.”

Rules:

1) Noscitur A Sociis:

The meaning of the rule “noscitur a sociis” is defined by:

Privy Council: “it is a legitimate rule of construction to construe words in an act of Parliament with reference to the words found in immediate connection with them.”[10]

Justice Gajendragadhkar: “This rule according to Maxwell[11] means that when 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 colour form each other i.e. the more general is restricted to a sense analogous to a less general.”

‘It’s important to remember that noscitur a sociis is merely a construction law, and it won’t apply in cases where it’s obvious that the broader terms were intentionally used to expand the meaning of the given term.[12] The current rule of construction can be usefully extended only when the legislature’s purpose in associating broader terms with words of narrower meaning is questionable or otherwise unclear.

2) Casus Omissus:

This rule states that an error in law cannot be remedied by judicial construction and, in general, cannot be remedied by interpretation.[13] The court’s only power is to correct factual errors in the statute’s terms and phrases, as well as the legislature’s meaning. The court tends to read the statute based on the language used rather than inserting a new phrase.

It is an extension of the same principle that the court cannot provide for a matter that should have been provided for in a statute because doing so would be law rather than construction.[14] However, no assumption exists that this rule exists, and the wording allowing the court to do so should be avoided.[15]

3) Ejusdem Generis:

“Clausa generalis de residue non ea complecitur, quae non ejusdem generis cum, iis quaspeciatim dicta feurint” 

When general terms follow specific words that belong to the same class or group, the general words must be interpreted in light of the specific words.[16] It denotes a similar nature or form. The terms of law must be interpreted in context, particularly when they are used in a summarizing or exhaustive manner, according to this concept. If there is some uncertainty, the term must be understood in light of the terms that came before it.

This rule of literal interpretation applies when:

  • “A list of descriptive terms is included in the legislation;
  • Enumeration subjects are grouped into a class or category;
  • The enumeration does not exhaust the class or category;
  • The enumeration is followed by the general terms; and
  • There is no evidence that the legislature has a different purpose in sight.”[17]

The enumerated items before general words must constitute a group, a genus, or a family that accepts a number of species or members in order to apply the ejusdem generis law. It must be used with caution and care. This is not an inalienable law and order, but it is only allowable intervention in the absence of an indication to the contrary[18], and where the sense, purpose, and mischief of the enactment do not require restricted meaning to be added to terms of general import, the courts have the duty to give those words their simple and ordinary meaning.[19]

4) Expressio Unius Est Excusio Alterius:

Whenever a person or thing is specifically included, another one is explicitly excluded. There is no room for enforcing the rule in which the legislative terminology is explicit and the meaning is clear.[20] 54 If a term or expression has two possible meanings, mentioning one of them in a similar manner automatically eliminates the other. However it is not appropriate to treat this rule as an obligatory rule of law, it may be used to indicate the Legislature’s goal or purpose. This maxim means “a valuable servant but a dangerous master,” in the words of Lopes, L.J.[21]

This law, however, does not always provide the solution to construction issues. This principle is often applied by mistake or unintentionally, as well as the maxim should not be enforced when its implementation, in light of the subject matter to which it is to be implemented, leads to ambiguity or injustice.

Rationale of this Rule:

The simple meaning rule’s supporters argue that it forbids courts from taking sides in constitutional or political disputes. They also point out that common citizens and attorneys have little access to secondary sources. The rule is often preferred in probate law because the testator is rarely present to indicate what interpretation of a will is proper. As a result, extrinsic proof should not be permitted to alter the testator’s words or their context, it is argued. It will help to ensure that interpretations are consistent.

Merits:

  1. Constitutionally it respects the parliamentary supremacy and the right of parliament to make any laws.
  2. It also encourages precision in drafting and ensures that anyone who can read English can determine the law, which promotes certainty and reduces litigation.
  3. A statute must be presumed to have been used in their natural sense.
  4. Statutes are embodiments of authoritative formulae and the words which are used to constitute part of law.

Criticism and Limitations of Literal Rule of Interpretation:

There are certain limitations of the literal rule of interpretation which later became the points of its criticism.

1) Ambiguity: When a word or phrase used in a statute has several meanings, it is unclear which particular meaning it represents in which sense or context in such a situation ambiguity arises. To determine the scope of the statute, the court would have to go beyond the statute while remaining true to its literal language.

2) Injustice: The words are meaningless without the context in which they are used. Blind obedience to this rule may result in injustice and, on occasion, there might be consequences that are very contrary to the statute’s general purpose or common sense.[22]

3) Incompleteness: It indicates that the law contains a gap or omission that prevents it from conveying a full concept, or that it is logically incomplete. In such cases, the court has the responsibility to make up for the defect by adding or changing something, but it is not permitted to do more. It’s only legal if the statutes are inapplicable in their current, incomplete form.

4) Absurdity: Often the court will interpret a statute in a way that the legislature never intended.

5) Restriction on courts: The conventional rule of literal interpretation prohibits the court from assigning any context other than the obvious. It effectively shuts down all judicial creativity.

6) Not suitable for changing times: The laws cannot be read in accordance with the ordinary sense of terms made long ago due to changes in policies and regulations.

7) Erroneous Assumption of words: The mistaken belief that words have a fixed meaning is emphasized by the law. In reality, words are imprecise, leading judges to apply their own biases to interpret statutes.

Conclusion:

The primary rule is the literal rule of interpretation. Courts view statutes in a literal and ordinary way under this law of interpretation. They apply a universal interpretation of the statute’s terms. The court is required to use the grammatical sense. The statutes should be interpreted as though there were no other interpretation than the literal meaning. It’s an age-old and well-established law of interpretation. It is used not only in England, but also in India, where it originated. Courts must keep a few things in mind when interpreting statutes. It must understand that a clause is only vague if it includes a word or expression that has several meanings. It is unclear if the interpretation is susceptible to different interpretations in one context, but it is plain if it is susceptible to different meanings in different contexts.

[1] Seventilal Maniklal Seth vs. Commissioner of Income Tax (Central) Bombay, (1968) 2 SCJ 129

[2] Elmer Driedger, “Construction of Statutes”, Pg.1, Butterworths, Toronto, 1983

[3] Special Deputy collector, LA Unit vs. Dasari Ramulu, 2001 AIHC 387

[4] Deepak Jain, “Interpretation of Statutes: A Treatise”, available on: http://www.itatonline.org/articles_new/wp-content/files/Interpretation_of_Statutes_A_Treatise.pdf, retreated on: April 15, 2021

[5]P. St. J. Langan, “Maxwell on the Interpretation of Statutes”, p. 76, 12th Ed, William Maxwell & Son, London

[6] Ibid. at page 20

[7] Salmond, INTERPRETATION OF STATUTES, p.395 (11th ed.)

[8] Molar Mal (deceased) v. Kay Iron Works (Pvt.) Ltd., (2000) 4 SCC 285

[9] Aiyer P Ramnathan, LAW LEXICON, p.153 (2nd ed., 2002); Rohit Pulp and Paper Mills Ltd. v. Collector of Central Excise, AIR 1991 SC 754

[10] M.K.Ranganathan v. Govt. of Madras, AIR 1955 SC 604; Ahmedabad Pvt. Primary Teachers Association v. Administrative Officer, AIR 2004 SC 1426

[11] Supra Note 5, pg. 321

[12] Cooley, CONSTITUTIONAL LIMITATIONS, p.142 (Vol. 1).

[13]B.N Mani Tripathi, “Jurisprudence- Legal Theory”, pg.127, (17th ed. Allahabad law Agency, Fardabad, 2006)

[14] ; Dhoom Singh v. Prakash Chandra Sethi, AIR 1975 SC 1012

[15] Karnataka State v. Union of India, AIR 1978 SC 68

[16] State of Karnataka v. Kempaiah, AIR 1998 SC 3047

[17] Amar Chandra v. Collector of Excise, Tripura, AIR 1972 SC 1863

[18] CIT vs. West Bengal, AIR 1978 SC 1272

[19] Hamdard Dawakhana v. Union of India, (1965) 2 SCR 192

[20] Supra Note 13, at p.253

[21] Coluhoun v. Brooks, (1886)21 Q.B.D 52

[22] Supra Note 12,at p.97

Also Read – All About Interpretation Of Statutes

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Radhika Maheshwari

I am Radhika Maheshwari, BALLB student (4th year) in Faculty of Law, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. I am born and brought up in Aligarh and completed my High School education from Radiant Stars English School with 10 CGPA and my +2 education from Girls School, AMU and scored 82%. I am also a "C" certificate holder in NCC and is currently working with an NGO "Zomato Feeding India, Aligarh". My hobbies include singing, dancing, reading novels, etc. In my college life, I have done a few internships, online courses and took part in some competitions. My strength is in my nature- I like to take up challenges and accept both success and failure in a balanced way, loves to do team work and am always eager to learn something new. Right now, my goal is to build my career in judiciary.