The Golden rule of Interpretation

By Shraddha Agrawal

Editor’s Note: The golden rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary meaning. It is yet another rule of construction that when the words of the statute are clear, plain and unambiguous, then the courts are bound to give effect to that meaning, irrespective of the consequences. The paper is a critique of the golden rule of interpretation along with relevant case laws.


Interpretation is the method by which the true sense or the meaning of the word is understood.[i] The meaning of an ordinary word of the English language is not a question of law. The proper construction of a statute is a question of law. The purpose of the interpretation of the statute is to unlock the locks put by the legislature. For such unlocking, keys are to be found out. These keys may be termed as aids for interpretation and principles of interpretation.

According to Gray,[ii] the process by which a judge (or indeed any person, lawyer or layman, who has occasion  to search for the meaning of a statute) constructs from words of a statute book, a meaning which he either believes to be that of the legislature, or which he proposes to attribute to it, is called ‘interpretation’.[iii]

The conventional way of interpreting a statute is to seek the intention of its makers, [iv] and apply that to the facts of the case at hand.[v] An interpretation of the statutory provision which defeats the intent and purpose for which the statute was enacted should be avoided.[vi] Justice Chakravarti made two observations on his behalf in Badsha Mia v. Rajjab Ali:[vii]

The primary object in interpreting a statute is always to discover the intention of the legislature and in England, the rules of interpretation, developed there, can be relied on to aid the discovery because those whose task is to put the intention of the legislature into language, fashion their language with those very rules in view.

Since framers of statutes couch the enactments in accordance with the same rules as the judicial interpreter applies, application of those rules in the analysis of a statute naturally brings up the intended meaning to the surface. It is at least doubtful whether, in a case of framers of Indian statutes of the present times, especially of the provincial legislature, the same assumption can always be made.

Interpretation is of two kinds – grammatical and logical. Grammatical interpretation is arrived at by reference to the laws of speech to the words used in the statute; in other words, it regards only the verbal expression of the legislature. Logical interpretation gives effect to the intention of the legislature by taking into account other circumstances permissible according to the rules settled in this behalf. ‘Proper construction’ is not satisfied by taking the words as if they were self-contained phrases. So considered, the words do not yield the meaning of a statute.[viii]

According to Gray, grammatical interpretation is the application to a statute of the laws of speech; logical interpretation calls for the comparison of the statute with other statutes and with the whole system of law, and for the consideration of the time and circumstances in which the statute was passed. It is the duty of the judicature to ascertain the true legal meaning of the words used by the legislature.

A statute is the will of the legislature and the fundamental rule of interpretation, to which all others are subordinate, and that a statute is to be expounded, according to the intent of them that made it. [ix] The object of interpretation is to find out the intention of the legislature.

The primary and foremost task of a court in interpreting a statute is to ascertain the intention of the legislature, actual or imputed. The words of the statute are to be construed so as to ascertain the mind of the legislature from the natural and grammatical meaning of the words which it has used. ‘The essence of the Law’, according to Salmond:[x]

Lies in its spirit, nor in its letter, for the letter is significant only as being the external manifestation of the intention that underlies it. Nevertheless, in all ordinary cases, the courts must be content to accept the litera legis as the exclusive and conclusive evidence of the sententia legis. They must, in general, take it absolutely for granted that the legislature has said what it meant, and meant what it has said.

Ita scriptumest is the first principal of interpretation. Judges are not at liberty to add to or take from or modify the letter of the law simply because they have reason to believe that the true sententia legis is not completely or correctly expressed by it. It is to say, in all ordinary case grammatical interpretation is the sole form allowable.

Parke B in Becke v. Smith[xi] formulated the following well-known rule for the interpretation of statutes:

If the precise words used are plain and unambiguous, in our judgment, we are bound to construe them in their ordinary sense, even though it does lead, in our view of the case, to an absurdity or manifest injustice. Words may be modified or varied where their import is doubtful or obscure, but we assume the function of legislators when we depart from, the ordinary meaning of the precise words used merely because we see, or fancy we see, an absurdity or manifest injustice from adherence to their literal meaning.

Burton J in Warburton v. Loveland,[xii] observed:

I apprehend it is a rule in the construction of statutes, that, in the first instance, the grammatical sense of the words is to be adhered to. If that is contrary to, or inconsistent with any expressed intention, or declared purpose of the statute, or if it would involve any absurdity, repugnance, or inconsistency, the grammatical sense must then be modified, extended, or abridged so far as to avoid such inconvenience, but no further.


Lord Wensleydale called it the ‘golden rule’ and adopted it in Grey v Pearson[xiii] and thereafter it is usually known as Lord Wensleydale’s Golden Rule. This is another version of the golden rule. His Lordship expressed himself thus:

I have been long and deeply impressed with the wisdom of the rule, now I believe universally adopted at least in the courts of law in Westminster Hall that in construing wills, and indeed statutes and all written instruments, the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless that would lead to some absurdity or some repugnance or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument, in which case the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words may be modified, so as to avoid that absurdity and inconsistency, but no further.

It is a very useful rule in the construction of a statute to adhere to the ordinary meaning of the words used, and to the grammatical construction, unless that is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the statute itself, or leads to any manifest absurdity or repugnance, in which case the language may be varied or modified so as to avoid such inconvenience, but no further.

Jervis CJ, also described it as the ‘golden rule’ in Matteson v. Hart.[xiv]

We must, therefore, in this case have recourse to what is called the golden rule of construction, as applied to Acts of parliament, viz to give to the words used by the Legislature their plain and natural meaning, unless it is manifest, from the general scope and intention of the statute, injustice, and absurdity would result from so construing them.

Thus, if the meaning of the words is at variance with the intention of the legislature to be collected from the statute itself and leads to some absurdity or repugnance, then the language may be varied or modified so as to avoid such inconvenience, absurdity or repugnance and no further. The modern positive approach is to have a purposeful construction, which is to effectuate the object and purpose of the Act.

In other words ambiguity, inconsistency, incompleteness in literal interpretation leads modification of language so as to avoid such inconvenience. When in construing a word literally, there exist variance with the intention of the legislature to be gathered from the subject or context of the statute, the language may be varied or modified in such a case, but no further. Ambiguity here means double meaning, a word’s expression capable of more than one meaning. A word is inconsistent when it is incompatible with other words or gives separate meaning when read with other parts of the statute.

The word ‘absurdity’ also means ‘repugnance’: Repugnancy appears when there is a direct conflict or inconsistencies like one provision says, “do” and other says, “don’t.” A situation may be reached where it is impossible to obey the one without disobeying the other.[xv] In all such cases, the statute becomes equivocal i.e., double meaning or questionable, suspicious or uncertain in nature. Whenever the meaning of the word, phrase, expression or sentence is uncertain, it may be a case of departing from the plain grammatical meaning, and there may be a need for application of the golden rule.[xvi]

It is however reiterated in every concerned case[xvii], that the province of the judge is a very different one of construing the language in which the legislature has finally expressed. If they undertake the other province, which belongs to the legislature who, have to endeavor to interpret the desire of the country, the courts are in danger of going astray in a labyrinth to the character of which they have no sufficient guide.

And in this order again, the only safe course is to read the language of the statute in what seems to be its natural sense. When we say that the ordinary and grammatical sense of the words must be adhered to in the first instance, it means that most words have primary meaning in which they are generally used, and such a meaning should be applied first. Words have a secondary meaning


There are three fundamental rules[xviii] suggested in the English Cases:

Firstly, the literal rule that, if the meaning of the section is plain, it is to be applied whatever the result. The Second is “golden rule” that the words should be given their ordinary sense unless that would lead to some absurdity or inconsistency with the rest of the instrument; and the “mischief rule” which emphasizes the general policy of the enactment and the evil at which it was directed.”[xix]

For the application of the literal rule, a clear and unequivocal meaning is essential. In Jugal Kishore Saraf v. Raw Cotton Co. Ltd.[xx]The Supreme Court held that the cardinal rule of construction of statutes is to read the statutes literally, that is by giving to the words their ordinary, natural and grammatical meaning. If, however, such a reading leads to absurdity and the words are susceptible of another meaning, the court may adopt the same. But when no such alternative construction is possible, the court must adopt the ordinary rule of literal interpretation.

In New India Sugar Mills Ltd. v. Commissioner of Sales Tax, Bihar,[xxi] the Apex Court had held: “It is a recognized rule of interpretation of statutes that expressions used therein should ordinary be understood in a sense in which they best harmonies with the object of the statute and which effectuate the object of the legislature. Therefore, when two constructions are feasible, the court will prefer that which advances the remedy and suppress the mischief as the legislature envisioned. The Court should adopt a project oriented approach keeping in mind the principle that legislative futility is to be ruled out so long as interpretative possibility permits.”

In Newspapers Ltd. v. State Industrial Tribunal,[xxii] the Supreme Court said: “in order to get the true import of the statute, it is necessary to view the enactment in retrospect, the reasons for enacting it, the evils it was to end and the object it was to sub-serve. The Act has therefore to be viewed as a whole and its intention determined by construing all the construing parts of the Act together and not by taking detached section as to take one word here and another there.”

Interpretative Process

Crawford has discussed the various ways by which the meaning of statutes is to be ascertained.[xxiii] He writes:

“The first source from which the legislative intent is to be sought is the words of the statute. Then an examination should be made of the context, and the subject matter and purpose of the enactment. After the exhaustion of all intrinsic aids, if the legislative intent is still obscure, it is proper for the court to consult the several extrinsic matters for further assistance. And during the consideration of the- various sources of assistance, further help may, of course, be found on the use of the numerous rules of construction.”

Austin divided the interpretative process into three sub-processes:

  • finding the rule;
  • finding the intention of the legislature; and
  • extending or restricting the statute so discovered to cover cases which should be covered.

De Sloovere recommended the following steps:

  • finding or choosing the proper statutory provisions;
  • interpreting the statute law in its technical sense; and
  • applying the meaning so found, to the case in hand.

According to Odgers[xxiv] there are three methods of judicial approach to the construction of a statute, namely, (a) the literal; (b) by employing the Golden Rule; and (c) by considering the mischief that the statute was designed to obviate or prevent. Vacher v. London Society of Compositors[xxv] is an example of the employment of all three methods approached. The question there was whether under Section 4(1), Trade Disputes Act 1906, any tortuous act by trade unions was protected or only such tortuous acts as were committed in contemplation or furtherance of a trade dispute.

The House of Lords took the former view and, in delivering their opinions, Lord Macnaughten adopted the Golden Rule from Grey v. Pearson[xxvi] Lord Atkinson followed the literal approach in the case of Cooke v. Charles A Vageler,[xxvii] while Lord Moulton discussed the history of the statute and applied the mischief method.

It is one of the well-established rules of construction that if the words of a statute are in themselves precise and unambiguous no more is necessary than to expound those words in their natural and ordinary sense, the words themselves in such a case best declaring the intention of the legislature. It is equally a well-settled principle of construction that where alternative constructions are equally open that alternative is to be chosen which will be consistent with the smooth working of the system which the statute purports to be regulating; and that alternative is to be rejected which will introduce uncertainty, fiction or confusion into the working of the system.[xxviii]


If the choice is between two interpretations, said Viscount Simon, L.C. in Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd.[xxix] “We should avoid a construction which would reduce the legislation to futility or the narrower one which would fail to achieve the manifest purpose of the legislation. We should rather accept the bolder construction based on the view that Parliament would legislate only for the purpose of bringing about an effective result. Thus, if the language is capable of more than one interpretation, one ought to discard the literal or natural meaning if it leads to an unreasonable result, and adopt that interpretation which leads to reasonably practical results.”

In this case[xxx] Section 154 of the Companies Act, 1929, was in question. This provision provided machinery for the transfer of the undertaking (an old company) to a new company. Under the section, “transfer” includes all property, rights, liabilities and duties of the former company vest with the latter. An issue therefore was whether a contract of service previously existing between an individual and transferor company automatically becomes a contract between the individual and the latter company.

Hence, an action was taken against him; however, no notice was given to him about the proposed amalgamation either by the transferor or the transferee company. It was contended that the contract of service could fall under the term “property”. Rejecting the contention, the House of Lords held that the benefits of a contract entered into between the former company and the employee cannot be transferred (by X company to Y company) without the consent of the employee.

Notice of amalgamation by transferor or Transferee Company to the individual servant was essential. The golden rule is that the words of a statute must prima facie be given their ordinary- meaning. If the legislature really desired that workmen should be transferred to a new company without their consent being obtained, plain words could be derived to express this intention.

As in the present case, neither the provision of law provides such a primary meaning as applicable to the transfer of personal service, and nor there is any overt act on the part of the transferor or the transferee company informing the worker as regards the amalgamation The contract did not exist between the appellant and the respondent and therefore the latter company cannot take any action against the employee regarding service.

In R. v. Sweden Lord Parker[xxxi] construed Section 1(1) of the poor Prisoners’ Defense Act, 1930: “Any person committed for trial for an indictable offence shall be entitled to free legal aid in the preparation and conduct of his defense at the trial and to have solicitor and counsel assigned to him for that purpose.” The Court of Criminal appeal held that this section gave the right to an accused person once the certificate is granted to have a solicitor assigned for the purposes mentioned, but not a right that that solicitor or another should defend him at the trial.

The court observed: “if the section properly construed, gave an accused person a right to have a solicitor at the trial, it would mean that he could repeatedly refuse to have the solicitor assigned when he got advice which he did not like and go to others, and there would be no means whatever to prevent that, with the result that there might be added expense to the country, delays and abuse of the whole procedure.” Such an unreasonable intention of Parliament cannot be imputed.

In Nyadar Singh v. Union of India,[xxxii] a restricted construction was given to rule 11 (VI) of the Central Services (Classification, Appeal and Control) Rules, 1965. This Rule empowers imposition of “penalty of reduction to a lower time-scale pay, grade post or service.” The Supreme Court held that a person initially appointed to a higher post and grade of pay scale cannot be reduced to a lower grade or post. A wider construction if given to the provision, it may affect the recruitment policy itself for a person directly recruited to a higher post may not have the requisite qualification for the lower post.

Maxwell says[xxxiii] that the application of Golden Rule of Construction, and its limits, can be seen in the area devoted to construction with reference to the consequences, and construction to avoid inconvenience and injustice, and to prevent evasion He illustrated the application of the rule in various cases relating to criminal, civil, labour, revenue taxation and administration branches of law.

In Free Lanka Insurance Co. Ltd. v. Ranasinghe (1964) AC 541 a Statute made it felony ‘to break from prison”. Held it would not apply to a prisoner who escaped while the prison was on fire. Since his act was, not to recover liberty, but to save his life. Similarly, a statute which made ‘an act’ criminal in unqualified terms was understood as not applying where the act done was excusable or justifiable on grounds generally recognized by law.

In Luke v. R.R.C[xxxiv] , Lord Reid said: “An intention to produce an unreasonable result is not to be imputed a statute if there is some other construction available. Where to apply words literally would defeat the “obvious intention of the legislation and produce a wholly unreasonable result” we must do some violence to the words and so achieve that obvious intention and produce a rational construction. Though our standard of drafting is such that it rarely emerges, but a problem may arise where more than one meaning arc available through the words of the statute, that meaning should be chosen which is reasonable and rational.”

In R. v. London Justices[xxxv], Section 105 of the Highways Act, 1835, gave an appeal to ‘any person’ who though himself aggrieved by any order, conviction, judgment or determination of a justice under the Act. This was held not to apply to ‘an informant who complained of an acquittal’ on a charge of obstructing of the highway, for if it did, the person acquitted would be liable to be twice vexed for the same offence.

In Day v. Simpson[xxxvi], it was held that the Theatres Act, 1843, which prohibited under a penalty the performance of plays without license, would extend to a performance where the players did not come on the stage, but acted m a chamber below it, their fingers being reflected by mirrors so as to appear to the spectators to be on the stage. To carryout effectually the object of a statute, it must be so construed as to defeat all attempts to do, or avoid doing, in an indirect or circuitous manner that which it has prohibited or enjoined.

This manner of construction has two aspects; one is that the courts, mindful of the Mischief Rule will not be astute to narrow the language of a statute so as to allow persons within its purview to escape its net. The other is that the statute may be applied to the substance rather than the mere form of transactions, thus defeating any shifts and contrivances, which parties may have devised in the hope of thereby falling outside the Act. When the courts find an attempt at concealment, they will, “brush away the cobweb varnish, and shrew the transactions in their true light.

Thus, in the name of justice or beneficial construction, the language of a statute cannot be narrowed down so as to permit one to escape from the purview of law. However, where the language itself is evasive and ambiguous, modification of it is permissible.[xxxvii]

In Inland Revenue Commissioner v. J.B. Hodge & Co. (Glasgow) Ltd., (1961) 1 WLR 92 held; “Where possible, a construction should be adopted which will facilitate the smooth working of the scheme of legislation established by the Act, which will avoid producing or prolonging artificiality in the law and which will not produce anomalous results. Where two possible constructions present, the more reasonable one is to be chosen.

In Gill v. Donald Humberstone & Co. Ltd., (1963) 1 WLR 929 per Lord Reid: ‘Beneficial laws are addressed to practical people, and ought to be construed in the light of practical consideration, rather than a meticulous comparison of the language of their various provisions. If the language is capable of more than one interpretation, we ought to discard the more natural meaning if it leads to an unreasonable result, and adopt that interpretation which leads to a reasonably practical result.” 


In India, there are several good examples where the Supreme Court or High Courts have applied the Golden Construction of Statutes. Certain confusion one may face when it appears that even for the literal rule, this rule is named. As golden rule initially starts with the search of the literal meaning of the provision, and if there is unequivocal meaning, plain and natural and no repugnancy, an uncertainty of absurdity appears, apply the meaning.

But when there is a possibility of more than one meaning, we have to go further to avoid the inconvenience by even modifying the language by addition, rejection or substitution of words so as to make meaning accurate expounding of intention of the legislature.[xxxviii]

In Uttar Pradesh Bhoodan Yagna Samiti v. Brij Kishore[xxxix], the Supreme Court held that the expression “landless person” used in Section 14 of U.P. Bhoodan Yagna Act, 1953, which made provision for grant of land to landless persons, was limited to “landless laborers”. A landless labour is he who is engaged in agriculture but having no agricultural land.

The Court further said that “any landless person” did not include a landless businessman residing in a city. The object of the Act was to implement the Bhoodan movement, which aimed at distribution of land to landless labourers who were verged in agriculture. A businessman, though landless cannot claim the benefit of the Act.

In Lee v. Knapp,[xl] Section 77(1) of the Road Traffic Act, 1960, provided that “a driver causing accident shall stop after the accident”, the interpretation of the word “stop” was in question. In this case, the driver of the motor vehicle stopped for a moment after causing an accident and then ran away. Applying the golden rule the court held that the driver had not fulfilled the requirement of the section, as he had not stopped for a reasonable period so as to enable interested persons to make necessary inquiries from him about the accident at the spot of the accident.

In Ramji Missar v. State of Bihar[xli] in construing Section 6 of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, the Supreme Court laid down that the crucial date on which the age of the offender had to be determined is not the date of offence, but the date on which the sentence is pronounced by the trial court An accused who on the date of offence was below 21 years of age but on the date on which the judgment pronounced, if he was above 21 years, he is not entitled to the benefit of the statute.

This conclusion reached having regard to the object of the Act. The object of the Statute is to prevent the turning of the youthful offenders into criminals by their association with the hardened criminals of mature age within the walls of the prison. An accused below 21 years is entitled to the benefit of the Act by sending him under the supervision of the probation officer instead of jail.

In Narendra Kiadivalapa v. Manikrao Patil,[xlii] Section 23 of the Representation of People Act, 1951, which permitted inclusion of the name in the electoral roll “till the last date for nomination” for an election in the concerned constituency, has been construed. Section 33(1) of the R.P. Act, 1951 specifies that the nomination papers shall be presented between the hours of 11’O clock in the fore noon and 3’0 clock in the after noon. Reading these provisions together in the light of the object behind them, the Supreme Court construed the words “last date” in section 23 as “last hour of the last date” of nomination under Section 33(1) of the Act.

In Annapurna Biscuit Manufacturing Co. v. Commissioner of Sales Tax, U P.,[xliii] Sales Tax was fixed at two per cent, of the turnover in the case of “cooked food” under Section 3A of the U.P. Sales Tax Act, 1948. The appellant firm engaged in the business of biscuit manufacture and sale. Whether biscuits though intended for human consumption, can be construed as “cooked food” and liable to be taxed as per the notification issued under the said provision.

Held that if an expression is capable of a wider meaning, the question whether the wider or narrower meaning should be accepted depends on the context of the statute. Here biscuit was not covered within the words ‘cooked food’. However, where the precise words used are plain and unambiguous the court is bound to construe them in their ordinary sense and not to limit plain words in an Act of Parliament by consideration of policy which has to decided not by the court but by Parliament itself.

In Tirath Singh v. Bachitter Singh[xliv] the appellant argued that it was obligatory under Section 99 (1) (a) of the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951 for the tribunal to record names of all persons who had been guilty of corrupt practices including parties and non-parties to the petition and that under the proviso, notice should be given to all persons named under Section 99(1)(a)(ii). He being a party to the petition was, therefore, entitled to a fresh notice. Supreme Court said that such an interpretation will lead to an absurdity and held that the proviso along with clause (b) thereto and the setting of the section pointed out that notice is contemplated only against non- parties to the petition.


Lord Moulten in Vacher & Sons v. London Society of Compositor[xlv] had explained the reasons for adopting caution before application of the golden rule of construction in these words: “There is a danger that it may generate into a mere judicial criticism of the propriety of the Acts of the legislature. We have to interpret statutes according to the language used therein, and though occasionally the respective consequences of two rival interpretations may guide us in our choice in between them, it can only be where, taking the Act as a whole and viewing it in connection with the existing state of law at the time of the passing of the Act, we can satisfy ourselves that the words cannot have been used in the sense the argument points.

“It may sometimes happen that laws made for the benefit of the public at large may come in the conflict of some individual interest or take away his legal right and cause injustice to him. That is to say, like public policy, absurdity, uncertainty or repugnance, are very unruly horses.

In State Bank of India v. Shri N. Sundara Money[xlvi], the Supreme Court said that “it is the duty of all courts of justice, to take care for the general good of the community, that hard cases do not make bad law. Referring earlier cases the court observed that absurdity should be understood in the same sense as repugnance that is to say something which would be as absurd with reference to the other words of the statute as to amount to repugnance

In Grundi v. Great Boulder Proprietary Cold Mines Ltd.,[xlvii] Lord Greene M.R. said,

“Although absurdity or non-absurdity of one conclusion as capered with another may be and very often is, of assistance to the court in choosing between two possible meanings of ambiguous words. The Golden Rule of Construction is a doctrine, which must be applied with great care, remembering that judges may be fallible in this question of absurdity and in any event it must not be applied so as to result in twisting language into a meaning, which it cannot bear. It is a doctrine which must not be used to re-write the language in a way different from that in which it was originally framed.”

Criticism of Golden Rule

The Golden Approach can be criticized:

The United Kingdom Law Commissions commented in their report that:

“There is a tendency in our systems, less evident in some recent decisions of the courts but still perceptible, to over emphasise the literal meaning of a provision (i.e. the meaning in the light of its immediate and obvious context) at the expense of the meaning to be derived from other possible contexts; the latter include the ‘mischief’ or general legislative purpose, as well as any international obligation of the United Kingdom, which underlie the provision”.[xlviii]

They also stated that to place undue emphasis on the literal meaning of words is to “assume an unattainable perfection in draftsmanship”[xlix] This was written in 1969 and in the light of more recent judicial developments,[l] it seems that the courts have shifted somewhat from the literal approach. Zander[li] contends that:The main principles of statutory interpretation-the literal rule, the golden rule and the mischief rule-are all called rules, but this is plainly a misnomer (A misnomer is a term that suggests an interpretation known to be untrue).

They are not rules in any ordinary sense of the word since they all point to different solutions to the same problem. Nor is there any indication, either in the so-called rules or elsewhere, as to which to apply in any given situation. Each of them may be applied but need not be” Zander, in his more recent book,[lii] criticized the golden rule for being silent as to how the court should proceed if it does find an unacceptable absurdity

  1. It suffers from the same difficulties as the literal approach vis a lack of wider contextual understandings of “meanings.”
  2. The idea of “absurdity” covers only a very few cases. Most cases involve situations where difficult choices have to be made between several fairly plausible arguments, not situations where the words lead to obvious absurdities.
  3. The use of the “absurdity” safety valve can be very erratic as pointed out by Professor Willis in his famous article, “Statute Interpretation in a Nutshell” (l938) l6 C.B. Rev.l. Willis at l3-l4:

What is an ‘absurdity’? When is the result of a particular interpretation so ‘absurd’ that a court will feel justified in departing from a ‘plain meaning’? There is the difficulty. ‘Absurdity’ is a concept no less vague and indefinite than plain meaning’: you cannot reconcile the cases upon it. It is infinitely more susceptible to the influence of personal prejudice.

The result is that in ultimate analysis the ‘golden rule’ does allow a court to make quite openly exceptions which are based not on the social policy behind the Act, not even on the total effect of the words used by the legislature, but purely on the social and political views of the men who happen to be sitting on the case …

What use do the courts make of the ‘golden rule’ today? Again the answer is the same – they use it as a device to achieve a desired result, in this case as a very last resort and only after all less blatant methods have failed. In those rare cases where the words in question are (a) narrow and precise, and (b) too ‘plain’ to be judicially held not plain, and yet to hold them applicable would shock the court’s sense of justice, the court will if it wishes to depart from their plain meaning, declare that to apply them literally to the facts of this case would result in an ‘absurdity’ of which the legislature could not be held guilty, and, invoking the ‘golden rule,’ will work out an implied exception. It was defined in Grey v. Pearson “the ordinary sense of the words is to be adhered to, unless it would lead to absurdity, when the ordinary sense may be modified to avoid the absurdity”


The ‘Golden rule’ could, thus, be explained as follows:—

  1. It is the duty of the Court to give effect to the meaning of an Act when the meaning can be fairly gathered from the words used, that is to say, if one construction would lead to an absurdity while another will give effect to what common sense would show, as obviously intended, the construction which would defeat the ends of the Act must be rejected even if the same words used in the same section, and even the same sentence, have to be construed differently. Indeed, the law goes so far as to require the courts sometimes even to modify the grammatical and ordinary sense of the words, if by doing so absurdity and inconsistency can be avoided.[liii]
  2. The Court should not be astute to defeat the provision of the Act whose meaning is, on the face of it, reasonably plain. Of course, this does not mean that an Act or any part of it can be recast. It must be possible to spell the meaning contended for, out of the words actually used.[liv]
  3. Unless the words are without meaning or absurd, it would be safe to give words their natural meaning because the framer is presumed to use the language which conveys the intention[lv] and it would not be in accord with any sound principle of construction to refuse to give effect to the provisions of a statute on the very elusive ground that to give them their ordinary meaning leads to consequences which are not in accord with the notions of propriety or justice entertained by the Court. [lvi]

Formatted on March 2nd, 2019.


[i] State of Jammu and Kashmir v Thankur Ganga Singh [1960] 2 SCR 346, P 351, per Subba Rao J.

[ii] Gray, Nature and Sources of the Law, second edn, pp 176-78.

[iii] Salmond, Interpretation of Statutes, eleventh edn, p 152.

[iv] Bhatia International v Bulk Trading SA & Anor (2002) 4 SCC 318.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] State of Kerala & Ors v Dr SG Sarvothama Prabhu (2001)9 SCC 673.

[vii] AIR 1946 Cal 348, p 353.

[viii] Romero v International Terminal Operating Co 358 US 354, 3 L Ed 2d 368, 375.

[ix] Sussex Peerage 65 RR 11.

[x] Jurisprudence, eleventhedn, p 152.

[xi] (1836) 2 M&W 191, 195,6LJEx54, 150 ER724; Allen, Law in the Making, fourth edn, pp 402-03; Abbey v Dale, Jervis (1851) 20 LJCP 233, p 235; followed in State of Kerala v West Coast Planters MR 1958 Ker 41, p 43; Sirsilk Ltd v Govt ofAndhra Pradesh AIR 1960 AP 373, p 375.

[xii] (1929) 1 H&B IR 623, p 648:

[xiii] (1857) 6 HL 61, p 106,26 LJ Ch 473,p 481 Abbot v Middleton (1858) 11 ER 28 ,7 HLC 114 ,115 ,per Lord Wensleydale

[xiv] (1854) 23 LJCP 108 ,p 144

[xv]  T.S. Baliah v. T.S. Regachari, AIR 1969 SC 701: (1969) 3 SCR 65: (1969) 72 1TR 787 (SC)

[xvi] For example, Robert Wingram Crawford v. Richard Spooner. MIA 179 (PC)

[xvii] G.W Paton, Jurisprudence (1946), p294

[xviii] Ibid

[xix]  Paton, Text Book of Jurisprudence, 1946, p 188.

[xx] AIR 1955 SC 376

[xxi] 1963 SCR Supl. (2) 459

[xxii]  [1957] S.C.R. 754

[xxiii] Crawford, Statutory Construction, p 274.

[xxiv] Odgers, Construction of Deeds and Statutes, second edn, pp 289-90.

[xxv] [ 1913] AC 107, p 117, per Lord Macnaughten, Lord Atkinson, Lord Moulton.

[xxvi] (1857) 6 HL Cas 61, 26 LTCh 473.

[xxvii] [1901] AC 102, p 107.

[xxviii] Collector of Customs, Baroda v Digvijayasinhji Mills AIR 1961 SC 1549, p 1551; ShriRam v State of Maharashtra AIR 1961 SC 674, p 678; quoted and relied on Markandey Singh, IPS v ML Bhanot, IPS (1988) 3 SCC 539.

[xxix] (1940) AC 1014: (1940) 3 AU ER 549 (HL). Maxwell explains thus, “Judges are not called upon to apply their opinions of sound policy so as to modify the plain meaning of statutory words, but where in construing general words, the meaning of which is not entirely plain there are adequate reasons for doubting whether the legislature could have been intending so wide an interpretation as would disregard fundamental principles, then we may be justified in adopting a narrower construction.”

[xxx] Nokes v. Doncaster Amalgamated Collieries Ltd 3 All ER 549 (HL).

[xxxi] (1964) 1 WLR 1454.

[xxxii] AIR 1988 SC 1979

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

[xxxiv]  (1963) AC 557

[xxxv] (1890) 25 QBD 357

[xxxvi] (1885) 34 LJMC 149

[xxxvii] Brazier v. Skipton Rock Co. Ltd. (1962) 1 WLR 1839.

[xxxviii] Kafaltiya A.B.,Interpretatation of Statutes, Universal Law Publishing, 2008 ,pp 52

[xxxix]  AIR 1981 SC 1656

[xl]  (1966) 3 AH ER 961.

[xli] AIR 1963 SC 1088: (1963) Supp 2 SCR 745

[xlii] AIR 1977 SC 2171

[xliii] AIR 1981 SC 1656

[xliv] AIR 1955 SC 850

[xlv]  [1912] UKHL 3; (1913) AC 107

[xlvi] [1976] 3 S.C.R. 160

[xlvii] 1948 1 All ER 21

[xlviii] “The Interpretation of Statutes”, (Law Com No 21) (Scot Law Com No 11), Report No 21, paragraph 80 (1969).

[xlix] Ibid ,at para 30

[l] Pepper v Hart [1992] 3 WLR 1032.

[li]. The Law Making Process (2nd edition, 1985), 129

[lii] The Law Making Process (4th edition, 1994), 130

[liii] See the Speech of Lordship Wensleydab in Grey v. Pearson [1857] 6 H.L.C. 61

[liv] Shamarac v. Parulkarv. Distt. Magistrate, Thana 1952 SCR 863.

[lv] Glaxo Laboratories (I) Ltd. v. Presiding Officer AIR 1989 SC 505.

[lvi] State of Rajasthan v. Mrs. Leela Jain AIR 1965 SC 1296.

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