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Interpretation of statutes – the process of ascertaining the true meaning


Mar 23, 2022

Interpretation of statutes

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‘Interpretation is the primary duty of the court. When a dispute comes before the court, the court settles it according to the law made by the legislature. In doing so he must know the intention of the legislature. Since the will of the legislators has been expressed in the form of law, the duty of the court is to discover the intention of the legislature within the confines of the language of the law. It is clear that the Court cannot do this arbitrarily. That is why some clear principles have emerged in this search by the Court over the centuries. These principles are called principles or rules of Interpretation.

Thus, Interpretation of statutes is the process of ascertaining the true meaning of the words used in a statute. If the language of the statute is clear then there is no need for the rules of interpretation.

The word ‘Interpretation’ is derived from the Latin term ‘interpretari’ which means

To explain or

To expound or

To understand or

To translate.

Interpretation is a process through which one arrives at the true and correct intention of the legislature which is held in the form of statutes. This helps in finding out the intention of the legislators.

The law is the will of the legislature. It may contain the following specialties.

Short Title –

It is the name given to the law only for identification. like- Indian Penal Code 1860, Indian Evidence Act 1872 etc. It merely identifies the act, does not describe it. It merely simplifies the mention of the Act.

Long Title –

It is written in the head of the law. In this, the short, but almost clear, purpose of the law is set, such as the long title of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 – ‘Act to consolidate and amend criminal procedure’ Similarly, the long title of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 is – ‘In courts’ The long title of the ‘Procedure for Consolidating and Amending the Civil Justice System’ and the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1934 is ‘Act for the Prevention of Adulteration in Food’.


The Preamble describes the main object of the Act, as the Preamble of the Indian Penal Code 1860 lays down – ‘Whereas a general penal code is expedient for India’.

Marginal Notes –

Marginal notes are those notes which are written along the side of the stream to highlight the effects of the currents. As in section 94 of the Indian Penal Code, the Marginal note is ‘act which any person is compelled by threats to do’ or section 11 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872 with the Marginal note ‘who is competent to contract’.

Headings of Sections –

Headings are a stream or a group of streams. They are generally recognized as the preamble of that section or those streams. For example, sections 172 to 190 of the Indian Penal Code are titled ‘Lawful acts of public servants’.

Definitions or Interpretations Clauses –

Generally it is contained in the initial sections of the law. Some specific words used in various provisions of the law are defined by them so that the clear meaning of those words is known. These are the only meanings generally considered proper meanings under that law. For example, Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 defines several words used in the Act such as court, fact, relevant, document, evidence, etc., as an interpretation clause.


Whenever a proviso is used in a section, the general presumption is that if the proviso had not been used, the matter referred to as a proviso would also have been included in the contents of that section. If any subject matter is to be kept beyond the subject matter of the section, then in the form of proviso, that material is kept under the section. As in the proviso clause of section 120A of the Indian Penal Code,


The purpose of adding an Illustration to a clause is only to make the clause clear through it. Example is helpful in clarifying the subject expressed under the clause.

Exception and savings clauses

The object of mentioning an exception with a saving clause is to keep an article out of that provision which would otherwise have been included in it. Thus all the matters which are mentioned as exceptions are included in the main provision. Just as Section 300 of the Indian Penal Code describes 5 exceptions, under which circumstances have been clarified in which culpable homicide does not take place of murder,

similarly, saving clauses are often added in the case of repeal or re-enactment of any law. It is often combined with a repealed law and its purpose is that the rights which have already been created in the repealed Act will not be affected by the new Act.


Explanations are often inserted with a view to clarifying a particular provision. Due to the lack of explanation, doubts may arise, such as in Section 108 of the Indian Penal Code, an attempt is made to explain the meaning of the abettor through five explanations.


Schedule is annexed to set out the rights and demerits under the law or to clarify the form of exercise of the powers given under the law. Sometimes some subjects are mentioned in the schedule in the form of a list for easy and proper understanding of the law. In the Constitution of India, such examples have been attached as the first, second and third lists of the Seventh Schedule.


There are different types of punctuation marks in the law viz. comma, semicolon, symbol line and bracket etc.’[1]


Interpretation of statutes

Legal Study Material

[1] T. Bhattacharya, ‘Interpretation of Statutes’ 2011, CLA