Golden Rule of Interpretation – LexForti Authorized Information & Journal

Through this article, the author seeks to understand the meaning of ‘Golden Rule of Interpretation’. This article has been authored by Sidharth Sabu, associated with National University of Advanced Legal Studies.

Introduction

One of the primary duties vested upon the judiciary is the interpretation of laws. In a legal dispute, justice is administered within the boundaries of a framework created by law and this legal framework encompasses The Constitution, Statutes, administrative rules and regulations. There is a plethora of legislation that defines the legal framework of a country.

Legislations or Statutes are written laws formulated and documented by the Legislature in compliance with the prescribed Parliamentary rules of procedure. While these laws act as principles in the administration of justice the role of the courts is to understand them. Courts interpret the written laws and apply them to cases. This process of interpretation is what gives the shape to these laws and this process isn’t misguided. There are a set of rules that courts follow for the purpose of interpreting Statutes.

The very basic rule of interpretation is the Literal rule of Interpretation wherein the courts take the wordings of the legislation as it is. However, there are certain obvious drawbacks attached to this as the language used in Statutes are rather not straightforward or in other words, the wordings in most Statutes tend to create ambiguity in the minds of the reader, so much so, that if the natural meaning of the wordings are taken it would create absurdity or ambiguity. In such a situation, some kind of modifications has to be made to the Rule of Literal Interpretation.

Golden Rule of Interpretation of Statute is a modification upon the Literal Rule wherein the court shall look into the literal meaning of the statute in the first instance and if such an interpretation would create irregularity or ambiguity the court shall modify the literal grammatical meaning of the provision to the extent of such irregularity. In cases where there are two possible interpretations arising out of the literal meaning of the provision of law, the courts shall reject that interpretation that would create an irregularity or absurdity.  

English Court

The line of distinction between the two concepts is very thin and courts, especially Indian courts have interchangeably used one for the other. From the analysis of the application of the rules by courts, it can be seen that the English courts have identified the two rules as two different concepts altogether.

Justice Burton in Warburton v Loveland[1] observed that at the first instance in the stage of interpretation the court shall look into the literal meaning of the Provisions but if that leads to repugnancy, absurdity or inconsistency the mere grammatical meaning if the provision may be abridged, altered or modified to the extent of such inconsistency.  

In Nokes v Doncaster[2], LC Viscount Simon opined that judges shall not adopt a kind of interpretation that would reduce the legislation to futility nor the one that would fail serve the purpose for which the legislation was made in the first place. Thus, a broader interpretation encapsulating the intent of the Parliament has to have adhered.

Usage

There are in fact two ways in which the Golden Rule of interpretation could be used by courts;

  • Where there are more than one interpretations to a given provision and the court negates the ones which are not in conformity with the legislative intent and the purpose of the Act.
  • Where the literal meaning of a provision leads to a situation where the provision seems absurd, the court shall make modifications to the meaning to the extent of solving such irregularity.

Illustrations

It was Lord Wensleydale who first coined the term Golden Rule of Interpretation in Grey v Pearson[3] and even he went by the same analogy as discussed above for adhering to the golden rule. In Luke v R R C[4], Lord Reid commented that if the literal view taken would destroy the purpose of the Act and nullify the Legislative intent, the court ought to do some “violence” to the literal meaning and modify the same to the extent that the irregularity vanishes.  In the Interpretation of Statutes[5], Maxwell lays down various examples of how the rule has been used by judges in different areas of law.

In Free Lanka insurance Co ltd v Ranasigh[6], there was a Statute which made the act of escaping prison a felony. There was an instance when a person escaped the prison when a fire broke out in the prison. Here, even though the Statute was silent with respect to the intention of the person escaping the prison, the court took that into consideration as it was not an ordinary case and needed special consideration. The intent of the person was not to escape the prison but rather, to save his life from fire.  

Another example of English Courts applying the Golden Rule is R v Allen[7]. In this case, the provision under interpretation was the Offences Against Persons Act, 1861 section 57 which defines Bigamy. As per the provision, a married individual, if while the marriage is still in force marries again shall be considered to have committed bigamy.

However, the Act is silent as to whether the second marriage has to be contractual marriage or whether the parties would merely have to attend a ceremony. The court in this case took the view that, since a contractual wedding is not possible for a second wedding, the fact that the marriage ceremony took place proves that the marriage had taken place.

Here, considering the literal meaning of the Act, there could be two possible interpretations to this provision;

1) A contract of marriage is necessary to prove the existence of the second marriage 2) The fact that a ceremony was conducted is enough to prove the marriage.

Taking the former interpretation would not in any way serve the purpose for which the provision was made in the first place.

In Re Sigsworth[8], A son had murdered his mother but since the mother had died intestate, her assets would be inherited by her nearest kin which in this case would be her son. However the court could not accept this on Public Policy grounds and they interpreted the provision of the Administration of Estates Act, 1925 in such a way that the murderer son would not be considered as her next kin. This is a broader application of the Statute by modifying the provision so as to prevent the absurdity of the murderer son inheriting the assets of eth deceased mother.

In the abovementioned case, the wordings of the Act does not create any sense of ambiguity, but it does in fact creates an injustice in with respect to that specific case as the mother who died intestate was killed by her own son who would in normal circumstances, inherit her assets. However, interpreting the provision in its natural meaning would be an injustice and it was this irregularity that the court resolved. This is a broader application of the golden rule where the judge plays an active role by adding more dimensions to law.

In Lee v Knapp[9], also known as the Hit-Stop-run case, the court applied the Golden Rule. As per section 77(1) of the Road Transport Act, 1960 there is a vested duty upon the driver of a motor vehicle to stop the vehicle where an accident has occurred and he is required to make a necessary inquiry to the person who has suffered the injury and give necessary information.

However, in this instant case, there was an accident and the driver stopped the vehicle for a very short period of time and then left the scene. If the literal meaning of the provision is taken with respect to this case, it can be seen that the driver had followed the law by stopping the vehicle. The court, however, held the driver, even though he stopped the vehicle for a short period of time, did not do it for furnishing any information to the injured person or makes any inquiry. Thus, the driver did not follow the law.

Indian Perspective

Coming to Indian cases it is seen that many judges use the term Golden Rule for literal interpretation. In National Insurance Co Ltd v Laxmi Narain Dhutt[10], the Supreme court referred Golden Rule as the one by which “statutes are to be interpreted according to the grammatical and ordinary sense of the word in grammatical or literal meaning unmindful of the consequence of such interpretation.” However this observation of the Supreme Court correlates to the Literal Interpretation of Statute for considering the English cases, it is clear that the essential feature of Golden Rule is to modify the literal meaning if it results in some kind of an irregularity.

In this regard, it is interesting to see the observation of the Supreme Court in M Pentaiah v Muddala Veeramallappa[11] where there was a dispute with respect to the applicability of two statutes. The respondents were elected members of the Municipal Committee and they were elected in pursuant to the Hyderabad Municipal and Town Committee Act of 1951. In 1956, new legislation was enacted by virtue of which the 1951 Statute was repealed.

However, the committee elected under the repealed statute was permitted to stay in office till the first meeting of the newly elected committee takes place. In this case, however, a newly elected committee under 1956 did not come into the office and hence the old committee continued for a period of more than 3 years which is the prescribed tenure under the Act of 1951.

The appellant filed a writ of Quo Warranto. The court held that, the provisions of the act with respect to the existence of the old committee opens up the possibility of two interpretations; that the old committee may stay in office until a newly elected body is set up or until the permissible tenure is over. The court was of the view that if the former interpretation is taken, the object of the act would fail and hence the latter interpretation was taken and the writ was issued accordingly by ordering the old committee to step down.

In this case, the judge had made some observations with respect to the interpretation of the Statute which was in tune with the English judgments that have been cited earlier. The court held, when a defect appears a judge cannot simply fold his hands and blame the draftsman. He must set to work on the constructive task of finding the intention of Parliament and then he must supplement the written word so as to give ” force and life ” to the intention of the legislature.

In Prabhudas Damodar Kotecha v Manhabala Jeram Damodar[12] the Supreme Court held, “Golden-rule is that the words of a statute must be prima facie be given their ordinary meaning when the language or phraseology employed by the legislature is precise and plain. This, by itself, proclaims the intention of the legislature in unequivocal terms, the same must be given effect to and it is unnecessary to fall upon the legislative history, statement of objects and reasons, framework of the statute etc. Such an exercise need be carried out, only when the words are unintelligible, ambiguous or vague.”

In Girdhari Lal & Sons v Balbir lal Mathur[13], the Supreme Court made an observation that the Golden Rule of Interpretation restricts the judge within the plain meaning of the statute. Similar to the cases that have been stated earlier, in this judgment also, Golden Rule has been synonymously used instead of the Literal Rule. It was held by the Apex court, “To avoid patent injustice, anomaly or absurdity or to avoid the invalidation of a law, the court would be well justified in departing from the so-called golden rule of construction so as to give effect to the object and purpose of the enactment by supplementing, the written word if necessary.” This observation too is far from what the English courts have laid down with respect to the application of the Golden Rule.

It was held in J Sreenivasa Rao v Govt of AP[14] that in taxation matters the statute shall be interpreted only by the Golden Rule of interpretation. However, in this case, the rule was synonymously used for Literal Rule of interpretation.

In Harbhajan Singh v Press Council of India[15], the Supreme Court, rather than treating these two alike, made a distinction between the two. The thing line of distinction between the two has been clearly examined with reference to its meaning as applied by English Courts. Reference was made to the observation of Lord Simon of Glaisdale in Suthendran v Immigration Appeals Tribunal that the people for whom laws would never be satisfied unless the Golden Rule of interpretation is applied whenever possible.

Criticism

One of the biggest criticisms against the Golden Rule of Interpretation is the very limited scope for judges to interpret. Much like the Literal Rule, the golden rule lays that first priority shall always be given to the natural meaning of the statute and judges do not hold much of discretion or freedom in analyzing the meaning of provisions.

Only when some kind of absurdity or repugnancy is caused in pursuant to the literal meaning would the Judges be allowed to alter the natural meaning of the Statute. Absurdity is a term no less vague or ambiguous than the plain meaning of any statutory provision.

Placing reliance on the applicability of the rule entirely upon vague, undefined and subjective concept defeats the purpose of the rule as its ultimate applicability depends on the social and political views of the judge. It is how the judge perceives the word absurdity upon which the entire applicability of the rule is depended.

However, considering the fact that unlimited scope of judicial intervention will strike the balance of legal framework, the power of the judge to drift from the clear and natural meaning of a proviso have to be limited. Predominance has to be given to the legislative intent and the object of enactment of the act so as to rightly interpret the statute with respect to a given case.

FAQs

What are the three rules of interpretation?

Rules of Interpretation
Rule of Literal Interpretation.
The Mischief Rule.
Golden Rule of Interpretation.
Rule of Harmonious Construction.

What is a golden rule approach of statutory interpretation?

The golden rule approach which says that the words of a statute must be interpreted in such a way that any manifestly absurd result does not arise from interpretation. We might call this the ‘sensible interpretation‘ approach. The general words get their meaning from the specific words.

[1]  (1929) 1 H&B IR 623, p 648

[2] 3 All ER 549 (HL)

[3] (1857) 6 HL 61, p 106

[4]  (1963) AC 557

[5] Maxwell ,Interpretation of Statutes,10th Edition ,1985 ,pp.43-45

[6] (1964) AC 541

[7] (1872) LR 1 CCR 367

[8]  [1935] Ch 89, DC

[9] (1966) 3 AH ER 961

[10] (2007) 3 SCC 700.

[11] 1961 AIR 1107

[12] 2013(10)SCALE 242

[13] 1986 2 SCC 237

[14] 2006(13) SCALE 27

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