External Aids to Interpretation


Statutes framed by the legislature account for the maximum part of the laws of the country. However, the language in which these statutes are framed can often be perplexing and not easy to understand, especially in twisted cases. Interpretation of these statutes is a primary role that judges play while deciding cases, however, it may become difficult to ascertain the true meaning of a statute or a particular provision from the language of it alone. This is where aids to interpretation come in. Literally, an aid is something which helps or assists someone in something. Aids to interpretation help in finding out the true meaning of the statute or provision, without having to bang one’s head against the wall!

Aids to interpretation do not, in any way, intend to confine the meaning of the statute in consideration, but they simply elaborate what is mentioned therein. The interpretation deduced must be reasonable and coherent, and confirming with the object of the statute.

Aids to interpretation can be external, i.e. those not within the statute, and internal, i.e. those within the statute. Further, there are certain rules that guide the judges while interpreting the statutes, and every rule has to be applied according to the provision in concern. In K. P. Varghese v. Income Tax Officer, Ernakulam[1], the Supreme Court observed that the interpretation of a statute, it being an exercise in the ascertainment of its meaning, everything that is logically relevant should be acceptable as interpretation…There are three rules of interpretation of statutes – the Literal rule, the Golden rule and the Mischief rule. An aid, on the other hand, is a device that helps in the interpretation. The court has to choose the various internal and external aids for the purpose of construction or interpretation.

While the internal aids may be of importance, external aids to interpretation also carry a lot of weight because they come into use when internal aids fail to deliver a desirable result. It may also happen that the court may take the help of both kinds of aids, external as well as internal, when it becomes almost impossible to derive the meaning of a provision. The following text discusses the external aids to interpretation as well as their application.

External Aids to interpretation

External Aids are taken into consideration when internal aids are unable to provide a clear and correct insight into the statute. As far as internal aids are concerned, they are limited in number, because they form a part of the statute, so they are those elements that are present within the statute, such as clauses, exceptions, provisions, explanations, headings etc. But when we talk about external aids, of course there is no limit because there is a plethora of legal literature that can be deliberated upon when a statute is construed. However, there are certain important aids that we consider as helpful when interpreting a statute, and which come foremost.

Parliamentary History

Parliamentary History consists of ingredients of the statute that are in their original form, i.e. when they were presented before the legislature before its enactment. The ministry which would have introduced the bill would have definitely come up with the necessity of the same, and provided a ground for the enactment of the statute, also known as the Statements of Objects and Reasons, which is of utmost significance. Parliamentary History would also include the reports of debates held in the Parliament and those passed by the different committees of the Parliament, resolutions passed by the two houses of the Parliament, and amendments to the bill, if any.

Earlier, Parliamentary History was not considered as an aid in the interpretation of a statute. This view came from the traditional English legal system, and the Supreme Court of India also followed in its footsteps. However, in cases that came before the court later on, this view changed to include Parliamentary History under external aids to interpretation.

In Ashwini Kumar Ghose v. Arabinda Bose[2], the then Chief Justice of India, Patanjali Shastri, stated that the Statements of Objects and Reasons should not be taken as an external aid to interpretation because it is presented during the course of the processing of the bill, and during that period the bill undergoes several changes, meaning thereby the Statements would also be liable to amends. But in State of West Bengal v. Subodh Gopal Bose[3], Justice S. R. Das took into account the Statements of Objects and Reasons to determine the socio-political and economic condition of the bill introduced, even though he fully supported the view in Ashwini Kumar[4]’s case.

In Indira Sawhney v. Union of India[5], the Supreme Court, while interpreting Article 16(4) of the Indian Constitution, mentioned the speech Dr. B. R. Ambedkar gave in the Constituent Assembly stating that the expression ‘backward class of citizens’ was not defined. The Court held that even though Parliamentary debate cannot be binding upon the courts, it can be taken into account to determine the context, background and intent of the legislature.

Historical Facts and Surrounding Circumstances

Historical facts provide a background to the statute and are important in establishing the environment in which the statute was brought forward. This external aid is specifically important when applying the Mischief Rule of Interpretation, laid down in Heydon[6]’s case, which seeks to answer four points:

  • The law before making of the statute in question
  • The mischief (or injury, if loosely stated) for which the earlier law did not provide
  • The remedy provided by the statute in question
  • The reason of the remedy so provided

These points directly correspond to the historical facts of the statute, i.e. the setting in which the statute is being enacted. The mischief rule was applied in Bengal Immunity Co. v. State of Bihar[7], where the construction of Article 286 was in question. The Court held that the state can impose sales tax only if all the ingredients of the sale have a territorial connection. Several states cannot impose sales tax on the same transaction.

Historical facts are basically the facts that lead to the evolution of the statute[8], so they can be of aid to the judges in finding out the true nature of the statute, and hence allow a speedy trial. Any ancient fact that participated in the development of the statute would be of assistance when interpreting that statute.

Scientific Inventions

It may so happen that once a statute is brought into force, certain developments related to the provisions of the statute may take place. In such a case, when the statute is interpreted, regard must be given to those later developments, specially in the field of science and technology, which is an ever-evolving field. The contemporary society is not stationary; development in every sphere is taking place at a rapid pace. Thus, these developments need to be taken into consideration while statutes made to govern these developments are being construed.

In State v. J. S. Chawdhry[9], Section 45 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, was in question. The section mentions only handwriting experts and not typewriting experts since typewriters were invented much later, while in the instant case the party on behalf of the state wanted to use the opinion of typewriting experts. The Supreme Court had earlier stated that the opinions of typewriting experts could not be used[10], but in the instant case, the Supreme Court ruled in opposition to its own view and held such opinion as admissible.

Other Statutes

If a statute in itself is not clear of what representation it offers, then other statutes in pari materia, i.e. dealing with the same or similar subject can be considered. Such statutes are not exactly the same, but they deal with the same topics, or deal with different topics of the same subject matter. These statutes are enacted at different times and under different circumstances, but they correspond to each other.[11] In State of Madras v. A. Vaidyanath Iyer[12], an income-tax officer was accused of taking bribe. The trial court sentenced the accused to 6 months of rigorous imprisonment, but when the appeal went to the High Court, it set him free on the basis that the accused may have simply borrowed money instead of accepting it as a bribe. The Supreme Court, while dealing with Section 4 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1947, stated that if there is proof that the accused has accepted gratification in any form other than legal remuneration, then it will be presumed that such gratification was accepted as a bribe, unless the contrary is proved. This has to be held as pari materia to the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, and the words ‘shall presume’ in the Evidence Act correspond to the words ‘it shall be presumed’ in the Prevention of Corruption Act. Thus, the Supreme Court reverted the decision of the High Court and held the accused guilty.

Foreign Decisions

Before independence, it was common practice for Indian courts to take recourse to English judgements while deciding a case on a peculiar matter. The obvious reason behind this was that the Indian legal system has its origins in the English legal system, and many of the laws of both the countries, England and India, are same. But after the Constitution of India was enacted, the Supreme Court of India heavily relied on American judgements.

However, Indian courts are not bound by the decisions of foreign courts, and the decisions are only persuasive in nature. In M. V. Elisabeth v. Harwan Investment and Trading Pvt. Ltd.[13], the Supreme Court took a differed opinion against the English courts while interpreting the words ‘damage caused by a ship’ under Section 443 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1958. The court included within its meaning not only physical damage but also damage caused to the cargo in the ship.

Dictionaries and Textbooks

There are a number of words which are not used in common parlance, and hence their meaning is not as clear as other words of common usage. In such a case, often the context in which the word is used is understood. But when this also fails, then the courts may resort to the dictionary meaning of the words, and derive their ordinary meaning. Due importance must be given to the context of the provision, because one word can have several meanings in several contexts.

In Motipur Zamnidary Co. Pvt. Ltd. v. State of Bihar[14], the question was whether sales tax could be levied upon sugarcane. The appellant argued that since sugarcane is a green vegetable, it should be exempted from tax, and stated the dictionary meaning of ‘vegetable’ as something which is derived from plants. The Supreme Court rejected this contention and held that under common usage, a vegetable is something that is grown in a kitchen garden and is used to consume during lunch or dinner. It further held that sugarcane was not a vegetable, and was thus, liable to sales tax.

Textbooks are also an abundant source when courts seek to interpret statutes. In Kesavananda Bharati[15]’s case, the Supreme Court relied upon a number of textbooks on legal subjects, written by eminent lawyers and authors. Textbooks present the subject matter in an explanatory form, and it becomes easier and relevant to consider textbooks over questions of interpretation. However, they also carry only persuasive value and the courts are not bound to follow any particular book or author.

Overview of External Aids to Interpretation

External aids to Interpretation are not limited to the ones mentioned above; rather, they can be extended to include all those documents and literature that are relevant as an aid. With further development in legal literature, external and internal aids would go on to encompass other elements as well.

The primary source of law is legislation, even though precedents and customs play a vital role in shaping the law of the land. But there is no denying the fact that legislation consists of legal jargon and puzzling terms, which can leave the most well-read and knowledgeable person confused. And when the courts have to interpret these legislations, they have to do so well within the boundary of their powers, because they cannot infringe the law-making power of the legislature and take it in their own hands, only to create new laws out of the existing ones. Interpretations and constructions should be done keeping in mind the sole purpose of delivering justice and that too with ease. Both, external and internal aids, provide assistance in the process of interpretation but the actual result rests with the judge, hence it falls upon the judges of our courts to observe their duties diligently.

General FAQs on External Aids to Interpretation

What are the various external aids to interpretation?

The basic external aids to interpretation include Parliamentary history, historical facts and surrounding circumstances, foreign decisions, textbooks and dictionaries, scientific inventions and other statutes.

How do scientific inventions help in assisting the courts while interpreting statutes?

Scientific inventions are a result of a society which is under constant development. Certain statutes are enacted before certain developments related to that statute would have taken place. But once these developments come into existence, they shape the provisions of the statute according to the present scenario. Thus, it becomes important to consider these inventions so that the accurate meaning of the statute, with respect to the existing conditions, is delivered.

How is the Mischief rule of interpretation connected to external aids of interpretation?

Historical facts provide a background to the statute and are important in establishing the environment in which the statute was brought forward. This external aid is specifically important when applying the Mischief rule, which seeks to answer four questions:
a)     The law before making the statute in question
b)     The mischief (or injury, if loosely stated) for which the earlier law did not provide
c)     The remedy provided by the statute in question
d)     The reason for the remedy so provided
These points directly correspond to the historical facts of the statute, i.e. the setting in which the statute is being enacted.

[1] AIR 1981 SC 1922.

[2] AIR 1952 SC 369.

[3] AIR 1954 SC 92.

[4] Supra note 2.

[5] AIR 1993 SC 477.

[6] EWHC Exch. J36.

[7] AIR 1955 SC 661.

[8] R. v. Ireland, (1997) 4 All ER 225.

[9] AIR 1996 SC 1491.

[10] Hanumant v. State of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1952 SC 343.

[11] United Society v. Eagle Bank, 7 Conn. 456 (1829).

[12] AIR 1958 SC 61.

[13] AIR 1993 SC 1014.

[14] AIR 1962 SC 660.

[15] AIR 1973 SC 1461.

Zara Suhail Ahmed

Zahra is a student at Aligarh Muslim University, pursuing a 5-year B.A. LLB course. Currently in her 4th year, Zahra opted for Law after completing most part of her schooling from Cambridge School, New Delhi. Zahra has interned under a few lawyers and firms, participated in various moot courts and similar events, and is proficient in research and written content. A strong believer that education is the greatest virtue, Zahra seeks to learn from every platform and individual, whether working alone or as a team. Although Zahra is keenly interested to pursue ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution) as a career, she has kept her options open and is interested in examining the different career prospects that her profession has to offer. Zahra has diversified interests apart from her professional life as well. Not only a successful lawyer, but she also aspires to become a productive human being.