Overview of Statutory Interpretation and Case Laws in India

  • September 3, 2017
  • 1:55 am
  • Vaishnavi Sen

The term interpretation means “To give meaning to”. Governmental power has been divided into three wings namely the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Interpretation of statues to render justice is the primary function of the judiciary. It is the duty of the Court to interpret the Act and give meaning to each word of the Statute.

The most common rule of interpretation is that every part of the statute must be understood in a harmonious manner by reading and construing every part of it together. The maxim “A Verbis legis non est recedendum” means that you must not vary the words of the statute while interpreting it. The object of interpretation of statutes is to determine the intention of the legislature conveyed expressly or impliedly in the language used.

To ensure that justice is made available to all, the judicial system has been evolved in all nations. It is extremely important and in fact necessary also that the Courts interpret the law in such a manner that ensures ‘access to justice’ to the maximum. For this purpose, the concept of ‘Canons of Interpretation’ has been expounded. The Canons are those rules that have been evolved by the Judiciary to help Courts determine the meaning and the intent of legislation.

Remedial Statutes

Remedial statutes and statutes which have come to be enacted on demand of the permanent public policy generally receive a liberal interpretation. On constructing a remedial statute the courts ought to give to it ‘the widest operation which its language will permit. They have only to see that the particular case is within the mischief to be remedied and falls within the language of the enactment.

The labour and welfare legislations should be broadly and liberally construed and while construing them due regard to the Directive Principles of State Policy (Part IV) and to any international convention on the subject must be given by the courts. In MC Mehta v. State of Tamil Nadu the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 was construed. The Court, having regard to the Directive Principles in Arts 39(e), 39(f), 4(i), 45 and 47 of the Constitution, the fundamental rights in Art 24, the International convention on the right of the child, not only directed a survey of child labour and its prohibition but also directed payment of Rs. 25,000 as contribution by the employer to the Child Labour-Rehabilitation-cum-Welfare Fund or alternative employment to parent/guardian of the child to ameliorate poverty and lack of funds for welfare of the child which is the main cause of child labour.

In case of a social benefit oriented legislation like the Consumer Protection Act 1986 the provisions of the consumer to achieve the purpose of the enactment but without doing violence to the language. If a section of a remedial statute is capable of two constructions, that construction should be preferred which furthers the policy of the Act and is more beneficial to those in whose intrest the Act may have been passed. The liberal construction must flow from the language used and the rule does not permit placing of an unnatural interpretation on the words contained in the enactment nor does it permit the raising of any presumption that protection of widest amplitude must be deemed to have been conferred upon those for whose benefit the legislation may have been enacted.

When contracts and transactions are prohibited by statutes for the sake of protecting one class of persons, the one from their situation and condition being liable to be oppressed and imposed upon by the other, the parties are not in pari delicto and a person belonging to the oppressed class can apply for redress even if he was a party to a contract or transaction prohibited by the statute.

In Noor Saba Khatoon v. Mohd Qasim, it was held that effect of a beneficial legislation is not construed to be defeated by a subsequent legislation except through a clear provision. Therefore, the rights of the minor children, irrespective of their religion, to get maintenance from their parents as provided in § 127 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 was construed not to have been taken away in respect of Muslims by the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act 1986. § 3(b) of the Act enables a divorced Muslim woman to claim maintenance for the minor children up to the age of two years only from her former husband. It has been held that the right of children to claim maintenance under § 125 Cr PC is independent of the right of divorced mother to claim maintenance for the infant children and the former is not affected by the Muslim Women Act 1986.

(i) Sadhoo v. Haji Lal Mohd Biri Works

In this case the Supreme Court interpreted § 31(2) (a) of the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act 1966. This § 31(2) (a) provides that the employees discharged, dismissed or retrenched may appeal to the prescribed authority. It was held that by the liberal construction of the section there need to be no written order of termination to enable the employee to appeal and that an employee who was terminated by stopping him to enter the place of work could appeal to the prescribed authority.

(ii) Central Railway Workshop, Jhasi v. Vishwanath

In this case the question before the court was whether time-keepers, who prepared pay sheet of the workshop staff, maintain leave account, dispose of settlement case and maintain records for other statistical purposes, were workers as defined in the Factories Act 1948. § 2 defined ‘as a person employed directly or through any agency, whether for wages or not in any manufacturing process used for a manufacturing process or any other kind of work incidental to or connected with the manufacturing process.’ The court gave a liberal construction to the definition of worker and held that time-keepers were workers being employed in a kind of work incidental to or connected with the manufacturing process.

(iii) Motor Owner’s Insurance Co Ltd v. JK Modi

In this case, the words ‘any one accident’ occurring in § 95(2) (a) of the Motor Vehicles Act 1939 was construed. Having regard to the beneficial purpose of the Act, the words were construed to signify as many accidents as the number of persons involved in the accident tto enable the limit of Rs. 20,000 payable by the insurance company to apply to each person injured.

(iv) Kuldip Kaur v. Surinder Singh

In this case the Supreme court dealt with § 125(3) of the Cr PC. This section provides for recovery of maintenance granted in favour of a wife or minor child by issue of a warrant if the order for maintenance is not complied with ‘without sufficient cause’ and enables the magistrate, if the amount still remains unpaid to sentence the person against whom the order is made to imprisonment for a period of one month. The court drew a distinction between ‘mode of enforcement’ and ‘mode of satisfaction’ and held that even after a sentences of imprisonment, the person concerned remained liable for arrests of maintenance for non-payment of which he was imprisoned and the liability for payment could be satisfied only by payment and not by suffering the sentence.

(v) Bhagirath v. Delhi Administration

In this case the Supreme Court held that the beneficent provisions of § 428, Cr PC directing set-off of the period of pre-conviction detention against the ‘term’ of imprisonment is applicable even to cases where the sentence is imprisonment for life and that such a sentence is also imprisonment ‘for a term’ within the section.

Penal Statutes

The principle that a statute enacting an offence or imposing a penalty is to be strictly construed is not of universal application which must necessarily be observed in every case. It is now only of limited application and it serves in the selection of one when two or more constructions are reasonably open. The rule was originally evolved to mitigate the rigour of monstrous sentences for trivial offences and although that necessity and that strictness has now almost vanished, the difference in approach made to a penal statute as against any other statute still persists.

According to Lord Esher, MR, the settled rule of construction of penal sections is that ‘if there is a reasonable interpretation which will avoid the penalty in any particular case we must adopt that construction. If there are two reasonable constructions we must give the more lenient one.’

Interpretation of penal provisions must be in consonance with the principles underlying fundamental rights. Any provision which visits an accused with adverse consequences without affording him any remedy to disprove an item of evidence which stands against his innocence, is inconsistent with the philosophy enshrined in Art 21. It was held by the Supreme Court that they should so interpret such a provision as to dilute it to make it amenable to Art 21 of the Constitution.

When words employed in a penal statute are not clear the principle ‘against double penalisation’ would be applied. Failure to comply with a statute may attract penalty. But only because a statute attracts penalty for failure to comply with the statutory provisions, the same in all situations would not call for a strict construction. An interpretation which strikes a balance between enforcement of law and protection of valuable human right of accused (right of privacy) must be resorted to. § 105 of the Evidence Act 1872 says that the burden to prove that the case of the accused falls within an exception to a statutory offence lies on him. But the question whether the defence set up by an accused is really a defence of an exception or a defence setting up non-existence of a fact which is an ingredient of the offence to be proved by the prosecution depends upon the construction of the particular statute.

In applying and interpreting a penal statute, public policy is also taken into consideration. In a recent case, the House of Lords held that consensual sadomasochistic homosexual encounters which occasioned actual bodily harm to the victim were assaults occasioning actual bodily harm, contrary to § 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and unlawful wounding contrary to § 20 0f the Act, notwithstanding the victim’s consent to the acts inflicted on him. The following are some of the propositions important in relation to strict construction of penal statutes:

(a) if the scope of prohibitory words cover only some class of persons or some well defined activity, their scope cannot be extended to cover more on consideration of policy or object if the statute.

(b) prohibitory words can be widely construed only if indicated in the statute. On the other hand if after full consideration no indication is found the benefit of construction will be given to the subject.

(c) if the prohibitory words in their own signification bear wider meaning which also fits in with the object or policy of the statute.

(i) JK (Bombay) Ltd v. Bharti Matha Mishra

In this case, it was held that the expression ‘officer or employee of a company’ applies not only to the existing officer or employee but also includes past officers or employees where such an officer or employee either

  • wrongfully obtains possession of any property, or
  • wrongfully withholds the same after the termination of his employment.

The expression would also include the ‘legal heirs or representatives.’ It was held by the court that the penal statutes should not be so liberally construed with the aid of presumptions, assumptions and implications as to rope in for the purposes of prosecution such persons against whom the prosecution is not intended by the statute and initiation of prosecution would be violative of Art 21 of the Constitution and against public policy.

(ii) Virtual Soft Systems Ltd v. CIT

The questions that arose before the Supreme Court in the case prior to the amendments by the Finance Act 2002 with effect from 1 April 2003 were:

  • What was meant by the words ‘in addition to any tax payable’in the charging § 27(1) (c) (iii)?
  • What was meant by the term ‘total income’ in Explanation 4(a) therein?

Allowing the appeals, it was held by the court that the statute crating the penalty is the first and the last consideration and the penal provision must be construed within the term and language of the particular statute. § 271 of the Act is a penal provision and there are well established principles for interpretation of such a penal provision. Such a provision has to be construed strictly and narrowly and not widely; with the object of advancing the object and intention of the legislature.

(iii) Municipal Corpn of Delhi v. Laxmi Narain Tondon

In this case, the definition of ‘sale’ in the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act 1954 was construed in the sense having regard to the mischief intended to be remedied. It was held that the ‘sale’ in the Act would include all commercial transactions where under an adulterated article of food was supplied for consumption by one person to another person. Therefore, supply or offer of food to hotelier to a customer when consolidated charge was made for residence and other amenities including food fell within the definition.

(iv) Tolaram v. State of Bombay

In this case, § 18 of the Bombay Rents, Hotels and Lodging Houses Rates (Control) Act 1947 was construed. This section provided that ‘if any landlord receives any fine, premium or other like sum or deposit or any consideration other than the standard rent in respect of the grant, renewal or continuance of a lease of any premise, such landlord shall be punished.’ It was held by the Supreme Court that the section did not prohibit the taking of money by owner of an incomplete building in consideration.


A statute may in certain aspects be a penal enactment and in certain others a remedial one. In respect of those provisions which are sanctioned on the pain of punishment for a crime the rule of strict construction in the limited sense may be applied. At any rate, as undue effort to construe such a provision liberally to promote the beneficent purpose behind it may be effectively counter balanced on consideration that a breach thereof leads to penal consequences.