In recent times, an enactment is less likely to leave room for doubts. But due to the difficulty of transforming the intention of the legislature into written words, judges may face a few issues while deciding on a case. Although seldom, at times the wordings of a statute might be unclear, vague and ambiguous. Subsequently, in such cases it becomes necessary for the courts to establish a lucid meaning of the words or phrases used by the legislature.
Meaning of Interpretation
The word interpretation has been derived from the Latin word ‘interpretari’. In Latin, it means “to expound, translate, understand or explain”. According to Cambridge English Dictionary, the literal meaning of the word interpretation is “an explanation or opinion of what something means”. In legal language, interpretation is the process of determining the intended meaning of a statute, deed, will, contract or constitution. In Salmond’s opinion, “Interpretation or construction is the process by which the Courts seek to ascertain the meaning of the legislature through the medium of the authoritative forms in which it is expressed.” In layman’s language, it can be understood to mean the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in a statute.
Therefore, interpretation can be defined as the method of determining the true sense of an enactment by rendering the words of the enactment their natural and ordinary meaning.
Need for Interpretation of Statute
In order to understand the intent and motive of the legislature behind the enactment of given a statute, the courts may resort to the process of interpretation of statute. In order to deliver a fair and just judgement, a judge must look into the clear interpretation of the statute in question. A mere thorough reading of statute may not help in understanding the clear intention underlying the statute. Therefore, from time to time, one must put his interpretation skills to use. This would not only help the judge render a sound judgement but also help clearing any confusion or misinterpretation of a statute and might even help in setting a precedent for future cases. In the legal context, the rules of interpretation secure an incredibly important position as they help courts decide, determine and touch upon the specific intention of the legislature while drafting the statute.
Interpretation: Synonymous with Construction or not?
Quite often interpretation and construction are assumed to have the same meaning, but there lies a thin line of distinction between the two. As established before, in the legal context, one may consider interpretation to be the process of determining the true sense underlying the statute. It is often confused with ‘construction’. Construction means drawing conclusions in relation to the case, that lie beyond the expression of the legal text. Interpretation helps resolving the ambiguity pertaining to the intention revolving around the enactment of the statute. Construction helps one in ascertaining the legal effect of a text. In the case of Commissioner of Wealth Tax v. Smt. Hashmatunnisa Begum[i], the court stated “The very concept of interpretation connotes the introduction of elements which are necessarily extrinsic to the words in the statute. Though the words “Interpretation” and “construction” are used interchangeably, the idea is somewhat different.”
While interpretation is resorted to even if the meaning of the constitution is clear, construction takes place when the meaning of the constitution is contested, ambiguous or vague. Interpretation is the process of identifying the linguistic meaning of a particular use of language in legal context.[ii] Construction is the process of applying that meaning to specific factual circumstances.[iii] In case of Fashion Fabrics of Iowa v. Retail Investment Corporation[iv], the Supreme Court was of the opinion that “Interpretation involves ascertaining the meaning of contractual words; construction refers to deciding their legal effect.”
Mischief Rule of Interpretation
Since, it is not possible to expect the Court to interpret arbitrarily, over the course of time, certain principles or rules have evolved out of the continuous exercise by the Courts. One of these rules of interpretation is the ‘Mischief Rule of Interpretation’.
Often referred to as Haydon’s Rule, the Mischief Rule of Interpretation is one of the most important rules of interpretation. In legal parlance, the word mischief is normally understood to be a kind of specific injury or damage resulting from another person’s action or inaction. But in relation to rules of interpretation, mischief means to prevent the misuse of provisions of a statute. It is widely known as the mischief rule primarily because it focuses on curing the mischief.
As per the Mischief Rule of Interpretation, a statute must be construed in such a way as to suppress the Mischief. Mischief should not have a place in the statute. If an attempt is made to add Mischief in any statute, then it must be prevented by the Mischief Rule of interpretation.
The meaning of the mischief rule of interpretation can be better understood with the help of a UK case law. The case of Smith v. Huge[v] revolved around the Street Offences Act, 1959. The statute was enacted to prohibit prostitutes from solicitating on roads to the passing public. Post the enactment of the said Act, the prostitutes began soliciting from their windows and balconies. Since, this defeated the intention of the legislation, some prostitutes were charged under Section 1(1) of the said Act which read as
“It shall be an offence for a person aged 18 or over (whether male or female) persistently to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution.”
In response to these charges, the prostitutes pleaded that they were not soliciting from “the streets”. Due to the misrepresentation of the meaning and intention of the said Act by the prostitutes, the court rejected their argument and applied the mischief rule of interpretation by stating that the inducement by them from the windows and balconies of their houses is also prohibited under the Act. The court justified this by stating that the purpose of the Act was to prevent prostitution. Hence, due to the application of the mischief rule, the court held that ‘the windows and balconies of their homes would count for an extension of the word and would come within the ambit of the word ‘street’.
Furthermore, the Allahabad High Court in the case of Rex v. Ramdayal,[vi] the learned judge stated “A statute is to be construed as to suppress the mischief aimed at and to advance the remedy provided by it. Widest scope should be given to the language for this purpose.”
Similarly, the Supreme Court in Sewantilal v. Income Tax Commissioner[vii] stated “it is a sound rule of interpretation that a statute should be so construed as to prevent the mischief and to advance the remedy according to the true intention of the makers of the statute.”
As mentioned before, Mischief rule of interpretation can be traced back to Haydon’s Case[viii]. It is considered to be a landmark judgment for the Mischief Rule of Interpretation because the Mischief Rule seemed to have evolved from this case. In the aforementioned case, it was held that there are four criterion which have to be met for the true interpretation of all the statutes in general. They are as follows: –
- What was the common law before the making of the Act/statute?
- What was the mischief for which the present statute was enacted?
- What remedy did the Parliament sought or had resolved and appointed to cure the disease of the commonwealth?
- The true reason of the remedy.
The core purpose behind the rule is to suppress the mischief and advance the remedy. Therefore, there lies a duty upon the Courts of Law to construct the statute in a way such that it suppresses the mischief and promotes the remedy in accordance with the intention of the legislature. Nonetheless, in the matter of The Commissioner of Income Tax – Madhya Pradesh and Bhopal v. Sodra Devi,[ix] Justice Bhagwati stated that “It is clear that unless there is any such ambiguity it would not be open to the court to depart from the normal rule of construction which is that the intention of the Legislature should be primarily gathered from the words which are used.”
Therefore, it is evident that the rule established in Heydon’s case can be applied only when the words in question are ambiguous and are reasonably capable of having two or more meanings.
Case Laws on the Mischief Rule of interpretation
1. Regional Provident Fund Commissioner v. Sri Krishna Manufacturing Company, 1962 AIR 1536
In this case, the factory listed as respondent comprised of 4 units for manufacturing. The 4 units operated as paddy mill, flour mill, saw mill and copper sheet units. The number of employees there were more than 50. By the application of the provisions of the Employees Provident Fund Act 1952, the Regional Provident Fund Commissioner directed the factory to furnish the employees with benefits. On the contrary, the respondent refused to comply on the ground that, separately, each of the 4 units comprised of less than 50 employees. Arguing on the aforesaid grounds, he stated that the provisions of the Act did not apply to him. Nonetheless, the court was of the opinion that the mischief rule needed to be applied in this case. Therefore, considering all the 4 units to be one industry.
2. Pyarali K. Tejani v. Mahadeo Ramchandra Dange & Ors (1974 AIR 228)
In this case, the accused was being prosecuted under The Prevention of Food Adulteration Act as he was selling supari that was sweetened with artificial sweetener. Although the accused argued that supari could not be considered as ‘food’ under the said Act, the Apex Court by emphasizing on the application of the mischief rule of interpretation, rejected this argument and held supari to be an ‘article of food’ under the Act. Hence, validating his prosecution under the provisions of the said Act.
3. Kanwar Singh v. Delhi Administration [1965 SCR (1) 7]
The Licensing Officer of the Delhi Corporation along with members of a raiding party, under the power vested in him in Section 418(1) of Delhi Municipal Corporation Act, 1957, took a few cattle belonging to the appellant into their custody. According to Section 418(1), the corporation or any other officer authorized by him could impound the abandoned cattle.
The appellant contended that those cattle belonged to him, therefore, it they couldn’t be considered abandoned as the word abandoned means ‘the loss of ownership’. The court, by applying the mischief rule of interpretation in order to elucidate the meaning of the word abandoned in the Act, stated “It is the duty of the court in construing a statute to give effect to the intention of the legislature. Therefore, giving a literal meaning to a word used by the draftsman, particularly in a penal statute, would defeat the object of the legislature, which is to suppress a mischief, the court can depart from the dictionary meaning or even the popular meaning of the word and instead give it a meaning which will ‘advance the remedy and suppress the mischief’.”
The court while explaining the meaning of the word ‘abandoned’ elucidated on the intention of the legislature behind using the it in the said Section. The court stated the abandoned does not mean that the cattle must be ownerless. Therefore, the meaning of the word abandoned in section 418 (1) means ‘let loose’ or ‘left unattended’. Consequently, the appeal was dismissed.
As and when necessary, the courts while rendering a judgement, taking into account the facts and issues of the case along with the particular statute in question, must apply the rules of interpretation. Maxwell in his Interpretation of Statutes was of the opinion that there lies a duty upon the Courts as regards the interpretation of statutes and that the courts should do construction in a way such that the mischief got no place in it. Hence, the courts must help in setting precedents by suppressing the mischief and encouraging the remedy.
[i] 1989 AIR 1024
[ii] Barnett, Randy E., Interpretation and Construction (March 13, 2012). Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Vol. 34, 2011, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 12-034, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2021318
[iv] 266 N.W. 2d 25 (Iowa 1978)
[v] 1960 WLR 830
[vi] I.L.R 1950 Allahabad 935
[vii] 1968 AIR 697
[viii]  EWHC Exch J36
[ix] 1957 AIR 832