Golden Rule of Interpretation

It is no surprise that legal words and phrases can often be confusing and unclear, specially to a layman. The legal language consists of so many words that can be used in contexts unknown to the reader. As a matter of fact, we cannot avoid these baffling words even if we want to, because we are surrounded by them. The laws of a nation are framed using these words. The statutes, judgements and guidelines that form a part of our legal justice system comprise of such difficult words, that are best left to the experts to interpret, that is, the judiciary. The courts have a very important responsibility of interpreting the statutes that the government frames, hence providing a clear meaning to the not-so-clear terms. However, what the courts need to keep in mind is that they cannot accord any meaning to the laws, as per their whims. They have to carve out the clear meaning and implication of the language used in the laws of a country. Sometimes the meaning may be obvious, sometimes it may be latent. It is the duty of the courts to break down the statutes into simpler language. Thus developed a set of rules of interpretation, and this article talks about one of them, that is the golden rule of interpretation.

Interpretation

Interpretation means understanding the correct meaning of a word or phrase. Interpretation is important in law because it helps in ascertaining the meaning of an ambiguous term, in particular a statute. It is often up to the judges to interpret the statutes so that it becomes easy to deliver the judgement in relation to that statute. Ordinarily, the meaning of a statute is derived keeping in mind the intention of its makers, and applied accordingly.[1] In Badsha Mia v. Rajab Ali[2], Justice Chakravarti observed that the objective behind the interpretation of statutes is to discover the true intention of the legislature, and that we can rely upon the rules of interpretation developed in England because those, upon whom the task of interpretation is put, formulate the legislations keeping in mind those very rules of interpretation.

Interpretation can be either grammatical or logical. Interpretation of statutes falls under the scope of logical interpretation, though sometimes grammatical interpretation is also required, where different circumstances are inferred from the given rules. Often, words, by themselves, do not project any meaning.

History of Interpretation

The rule of interpretation was defined by Lord Wensleydale, in Becke v. Smith[3], in the sense that the rule of interpretation is useful in the construction of a statute, which refers to the ordinary meaning of the words and appropriate grammatical construction, unless the intention of the legislature differs from what is obvious. In that case, the language can be modified so as to avoid any inconvenience in ascertaining the correct meaning of the statute. Twenty years later, Lord Wensleydale redefined the rule in Grey v. Pearson[4], saying that in the construction of wills, statutes and all written documents, the ordinary meaning of the words has to be taken into account, unless that clashes with the true intention of the words, and if it is so, then the words can be modified to remove any clash or repugnance. But no unnecessary modification must be done.

In R. v. Allen[5], the charge placed on the defendant was that of bigamy, under Section 57 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. The court stated that the word ‘marry’ did not imply ‘getting legally married’ because that is inapplicable to someone who is already married. It would only imply ‘going through a second marriage ceremony. However, the leading case on the rule of interpretation is Adler v. George[6], wherein the defendant obstructed a military guard from performing his duty. To prove the same, the prosecution had to show that the act took place in a military establishment. The defendant opposed by stating that ‘in the vicinity of a military establishment’ meant ‘in proximity’ of that area, whereas the offender was inside the establishment, which was an RAF base. The court observed that the meaning put forward by the defendant would result in absurdity, thus covering the defendant under the definition of ‘in the vicinity’.

Rules of Interpretation: The Golden Rule

There are a few rules for the interpretation of statutes:

The golden rule of interpretation is a modification of the literal rule of interpretation. Where the literal rule lays emphasis on the literal meaning of the words used in legal language, the golden rule interprets the words in such a way that the absurdities and anomalies of literal interpretation are avoided. The golden rule modifies the language as well as the grammar of the words used in statutes and other documents of interpretation, thus providing the actual meaning of the words. It brings forth the context in which the words have been used in a particular stance.

It must be kept in mind that the golden rule of interpretation can only be used when there is no correct grammatical construction possible. The legal language is sometimes composed of such words that do not provide a noticeable meaning, and to determine the latent meaning the golden rule is used. The judges of the courts must be aware of the consequences of interpreting the statutes using the golden rule, and it must only be used where it is absolutely necessary.

The modern approach to using the rules of interpretation is to have a purposeful construction, i.e., to bring into light the object of the legislation. In New India Sugar Mills Ltd. v. Commissioner of Income Tax, Bihar[7], the Supreme Court held that the enactments within a statute must ordinarily be understood in a way that furthers the object of the statute as well as that of the legislature, and if two constructions of the same enactment exist, the court will adopt the one that advances remedy and suppresses any mischief. If the literal rule of interpretation were to be considered every time, it would result in irregularity and uncertainty because a word can have different meanings when put in different contexts. Also, what other words are used with that word also define or reduce its meaning variably. This would result in ambiguity, or multiple meanings of a single word. It can also result in absurdity, which means that the accurate meaning of the word as mentioned in the statute is completely opposite of what is being deduced from literal constructions.[8] In such cases, the statute becomes questionable. Thus, these situations call for the application of the golden rule of interpretation.[9]

Interpretation Procedure

There are various methods suggested by experts in determining the meaning of statutes. According to Austin, the interpretive process consists of three steps: (a) discovering the rule, (b) ascertaining the intention of the legislature, and (c) extending the statute to cover all those cases that fall within its scope. De Sloovere also stated three steps of interpretation, with the first being choosing the proper statutory expression, followed by interpretation of that expression in a technical way, and applying the so found interpretation, or meaning, to the case(s) given.

Odgers mentions the first three rules as the steps of interpretation, namely, the literal rule, followed by the golden rule, and lastly the rule of mischief. The case of Vacher v. London Society of Compositors[10] is an example of the application of all the three rules.

It is well settled that if the words of a statute themselves deliver a clear and unambiguous meaning, there is no need to employ the golden rule of interpretation to modify the already existing correct meaning. It is also evident that where the words so used in a statute are not those which could give a precise meaning to the expression in question, it is important to apply the golden rule of interpretation, in such a way that the true intention of the words is not reversed or modified in any way.

Application of Golden Rule of Interpretation

In Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd.[11], Viscount Simon, L. C., observed that where two constructions are possible, the court will avoid the one that would prevent the object of the statute from being achieved, thus defeating the intent of the legislature. One should always adopt that meaning which gives a reasonably clear meaning to the expression. In Nyadar Singh v. Union of India[12], Rule 11(IV) of the Central Services (Classification, Appeal and Control) Rules, 1965, imposed penalty ‘reduction to a lower time-scale pay grade, post or service. This rule was given a strict interpretation, and the Supreme Court held that a person appointed to a high post or pay grade-scale cannot be later on reduced to a lower post or pay grade-scale. If this rule were to be accorded a wider interpretation, any person appointed to a higher post may lack the necessary qualification for a lower post.

In U. P. Bhoodan Yagna Samiti v. Brij Kishore[13], the Apex Court held that the meaning of the term ‘landless person’ under Section 14 of the Bhoodan Yagna Act, 1953, signified ‘landless labourers’ only, and not ‘landless businessmen’. The object of the Act was to provide land to labourers engaged in agriculture, and not to businessmen.

In Ramji Missar v. State of Bihar[14], the Supreme Court, in construing the age of the offender as per Section 6 of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, held that the date according to which the age of the offender has to be determined is not the date of commission of offence but the date of pronouncement of the sentence.

Criticism of Golden Rule of Interpretation

Even though the golden rule of interpretation proves to be useful over the literal rule, there may be instances where application of this rule may lead to further unclarity. It does not point out whether an anomaly actually exists in a legislative expression or not. It also does not determine the extent of such anomaly, even if one were to exist. It also puts the judges in a sort of dilemma, where they are left with nothing but to apply their own understanding of the expression, which renders justice in biased hands. This may or may not be intentionally done, but the fact that every judge can have a special opinion cannot be negated. The golden rule of interpretation puts the judiciary under heavy responsibility of finding out the intention of the legislature behind each legislative expression. In fact, every rule of interpretation brings with itself some lacuna which needs to be looked into and adjusted accordingly. The ultimate obligation of the courts is to deliver justice, without defeating the provisions of the legislation. Unless a construction renders an enactment absurd, it should be given its natural meaning.

FAQs on Golden Rule of Interpretation

What is the difference between the literal rule and the golden rule of interpretation?

The literal rule of interpretation focuses on the literal meaning of words used in a legal statute, but the golden rule brings out any secondary or hidden meaning of those words.

Why is the golden rule of interpretation criticised?

The golden rule of interpretation may not always prove to be useful in determining the meaning of a statutory expression, because it can create more than one possible constructions of that expression, thus putting the judges in confusion. It does not determine the extent or existence of an absurdity present in the expression, but simply calls for its modification.

Why is interpretation of legal documents important?

Interpretation means understanding the correct meaning of a word or phrase. Interpretation is important in law because it helps in ascertaining the meaning of an ambiguous term, in particular a statute.

What does uncertainty or absurdity mean in context of interpretation of statutes?

Uncertainty in terms of interpretation of statutes would mean that the meaning of the words used in the statute is unclear, and therefore cannot be applied to a given case. An absurdity would mean that the meaning so derived from the interpretation of a statute is actually the opposite of what the statute wants to state.

[1] Bhatia International v. Bulk Trading SA & Anr., (2002) 4 SCC 318.

[2] AIR 1946 Cal 348, p 353.

[3] (1836) 2 M&W 195.

[4] (1857) 6 HLC 61.

[5] (1872) LR 1 CCR 367.

[6] (1964) 1 All ER 628.

[7] 1963 SCR Supl. (2) 459.

[8] T. S. Baliah v. T. S. Regachari, AIR 1969 SC 701.

[9] Robert Wingram Crawford v. Richard Spooner, MIA 179 (PC).

[10] (1913) AC 107, p 117.

[11] (1940) AC 1014.

[12] AIR 1988 SC 1979.

[13] AIR 1981 SC 1656.

[14] AIR 1963 SC 1088.

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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.