Literal Rule and Mischief Rule Interpretation





            Salmond defines “interpretation” as “a process by which the Court seeks the meaning of Legislature through the medium of authoritative forms in which it expresses”. The purpose of interpretation is always to find out what the statute stands for, what is the defect it intends to remove and what is the remedy it seeks to advance[1]. Judges are not at liberty to add or take from or modify the letter of the law, simply because they have reason to believe that the true sententia legis[2] is not completely or correctly expressed by the law[3]. The duty of the Court is to discover and act upon the true intention of the legislature.

            The Supreme Court in Institute of Chartered Accountants of India vs. M/s. Price Waterhouse[4], while lamenting the scant attention paid by draftsman to the language of statutes, referred to the British jingle “I am the Parliamentary draftsman. I compose the country’s laws. And of half of the litigation, I am undoubtedly the cause”. Reference was also made to Kirby vs. Leather[5], where the Court observed that the provision of the (UK) Limitation Act, 1939 was so obscure “that the draftsman must have been of unsound mind”. Construction of statutes and interpretation of laws should obviously cover all areas affecting the rights of the citizens.

            The art of judicial interpretation, according to Krishna Iyer, J., Supreme Court, is imbued with creativity and realism …. Legal Darwinism adapting the rule of law to new societal developments, so as to survive and serve the social order, is necessary[6]


            Elaborate rules of interpretation were evolved even at a very early stage of Hindu civilization and culture. The rules given by ‘Jaimini’, the author of Mimamsat Sutras, originally meant for srutis were employed for the interpretation of smritis also[7].

            In common law jurisdictions, the judiciary may apply rules of statutory interpretation and use various tools and methods of statutory interpretation, including traditional canons of statutory interpretation, legislative history and purpose, both to legislation enacted by the legislature and to delegated legislation such as administrative agency regulations.

            Over time, various methods of statutory construction have fallen in and out of favor. Two such rules of interpretation are the Literal rule and the Mischief rule.


            Literal Rule or Plain Meaning Rule is acclaimed as the safest guide to legislative intent, as the legislature is not to be supposed to use words in a statute, in vain. A Court of law is bound to proceed upon the assumption that the legislature is an ideal person that does not make mistake[8].

            The Courts are warned not to assume ambiguity where there is none[9]. Ambiguity can be inferred if the word or phrase in a  statute is capable of more than one meaning in that particular context[10]. A consequence that follows from the doctrine of literal constructions is that, effect must be given, if possible, to every word, clause and sentence of a statute[11].

            The function of the Court is “not to scan the wisdom and policy, where the language of a statute is clear, and it is the duty of the Court to give full effect to the same[12].

            It is the duty of the Court to interpret the language actually employed and to determine the intention of the legislature from such language and where there is no ambiguity about the language actually employed, neither the recommendation if the Law Commission, nor the aims and objects set out in the Statement of Objects and Reasons can be brought in aid or can be allowed to influence the natural grammatical meaning of the statute as enacted by the Parliament[13].

            The length and detail of modern legislation has undoubtedly reinforced the claim of literal construction as the safe rule[14]. It is always advisable to find out the intention from the plain meaning as conveyed by the words as used in the Statute.


            The mischief rule, “the most firmly established rule for construing an obscure enactment”[15] is another rule of statutory interpretation traditionally applied by English courts.  The rule was first laid out in a 16th-century ruling of the Barons of the Exchequer Court in Heydon’s case[16] which have been continually cited with approval and acted upon[17].

            The main aim of the rule is to determine the “mischief and defect” that the statute in question has set out to remedy, and what ruling would effectively implement this remedy. In applying the Mischief Rule, the court is essentially asking what part of the law, did the law not cover, but was meant to be rectified by the parliament in passing the bill. The intention of this rule is to make such an interpretation as shall suppress that mischief and advance the remedy.

            The rules as laid down in the Heydon’s case[18] are that, for the sure and true interpretation of all statutes, be they penal or beneficial or restrictive or enlarging the common law, four things are to be discerned and considered :

  1. what was the common law before the making of the Act ?
  2. what was the mischief and defenct for which the common law did not provide ?
  • what remedy, the Parliament hath resolved and appointed to cure the disease ?
  1. the true reason of the remedy.

The scope of the rule in Heydon’s case was explained in Prashar v. Vasantsen Dwarkadas[19]:- ” In construing an enactment and determining its true scope, it is permissible to have regard to all such factors as can be legitimately be taken into account to ascertain the intention of the legislature such as history of the Act, the reasons which led to its being passed, the mischief which had to be cured as well as the cure as also the other provisions of the Statute. That is the rule in Heydon’s case which was accepted in R.M.D.Chamarbaughwalla v. Union of India.[20]

            In the Bengal Immunity case[21], the mischief rule was applied to the construction of Article 286 of the Constitution of India, observing that it was to cure the mischief of multiple taxation and to preserve the free flow of the inter-State trade or commerce in the Union of India regarded as one economic unit without any provincial barrier that the Constitution makers adopted Article 286 in the Constitution.

            Mischief Rule is not applicable when words are capable of one meaning only. The recourse to the policy and object of the Act or consideration of the mischief and defect which the Act purports to remedy is only permissible when the language is capable of two interpretations.


            Interpretation or construction is a technique of judicial process by which the intention of the legislature is to be determined. But in determining the intention, primarily, the language used in the statute has to be taken into consideration. If the words of a statute are themselves precise and unambiguous, then no more can be necessary than to expound those words in their ordinary and natural sense.

[1] Seventilal Maneklal Seth v. Commr. Of Income Tax(Central) Bombay, (1968) 2 SCJ 129.

[2] Sense; import; as distinguished from mere words, Black’s Law Dictionary

[3] Moss v. Charnock, 1802) 2 East 399.

[4] A.I.R. 1998 S.C. 90

[5] (1965) 2 All ER 441

[6] D.R.Venkatachalam v. Dy. Transport Officer,  AIR1977 SC 842 (847)

[7] Law Commission of India, 60th Report, Chapter 2, para 2.2

[8] Thakur Madho Singh v. Lieut.Kames, R.R.Skinner, AIR 1942 Lahore 243.

[9] Mahadeolal Kanodia v.Administrator General W.B. AIR 1960 SC 936 (940)

[10] Kirkness v. John Hudson & CO., (1955 2 All ER 345 (HL) 366.

[11] State v. Bartlay, 39 Neb 353 (1894)

[12] Commissioner of Sales Tax, U>P., Lucknow v. M/s. Parsons Tools and plants, kanput, AIR 1975 SC 1039

[13] Subhash Ganpat Roy Buty v. maroti, AIR 1975 Bom 244; Indian Chamber of Commerce v. CIT West Bengal AIR 1976 SC 348.

[14] Lord Evershed, M.R. – Foreword to Maxwell’s Interpretation of Statutes 11th Edition.

[15] Craies, On Statute Law 7th edition page 96.

[16] (1584) 76 ER 73:3CO. Rep.7a.

[17] Millers v. Salomons, (1852) 7Ex 475; Sant Raj v. State of Madras, AIR 1974 SC 517 (520)

[18] (1584) 76 ER 73:3CO. Rep.7a.

[19] AIR 1963 SC 1356

[20] (1957) SCR 930 (936)

[21] AIR 1955 SC 661 (674)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here