Interpretation of Statutes

By Ankita Singh, RMLNLU


The legislation can lay down legal definition of its own language, if such bodies are embodied in the code itself, it becomes binding on the courts. When the acts itself provides a dictionary for the words used, the court must first look into that dictionary for interpretation. In Mayor of Portsmouth v. Smith, the Court said that the introduction of the interpretation clause is a novelty.

There have been both the criticism and the appraisal made in reference to the inclusion of definition clause in a statute. In Mayor of Portsmouth v. Smith, the Court observed: “the introduction of interpretation clause is a novelty.” When the act itself provides the dictionary for the words used, the court must first look into that dictionary for interpretation. And then, there has been criticism made as to the utility of definition clause or the interpretation clause. Despite this, there has been an inclusion of definition clause in most of the statutes so created, whether in the Indian Statutes or the statutes abroad.

Talking of the pros of adding definitions to a statute, these definitions help greatly to the one who reads the statute. Following are the benefits that arise by adding meaning to the frequent and important words of a statute:

i. It provides some kind of certainty and idea as to what extent is the meaning of the phrase or the word so defined, can be taken. Without having any definition to a word, it becomes ambiguous as to what the statute or the legislature had the intention of the word so added.

ii. When a word has been defined in a statute, it saves the same word to be defined everywhere in a statute, since the word so defined are frequently used. It is a great help to those reading and making in use the statutes.

iii. By adding definition to a word, it is helpful as one can easily understand as to what the statute is intended to say. A statute thus may well provide with the definition of a word which suits the legislation and can differ with the general meaning of the word and yet still stand authoritative.

iv. There are different meanings to a word when used as different dictionaries provide with quite different meanings, hindering the interpretation of a word and, thus the provision in a statute. Providing with a definition in the statute itself makes a lot easier to understand of what the word in the statute really means and would help interpret further on if need be, thus eliminating the ambiguity as to the meaning of a word or phrase in a statute.

As to the cons of adding meaning or definition to a word in legislation, there has been criticism made on it.

On drawing a balance between them while comparing both the pros and cons of adding a definition clause to a statute, it seems the pros have a higher persuasive value of adding meaning to a statute than of the cons of it.

To sum up, the object of a definition is to avoid the necessity of frequent repetitions in describing the subject matter to which the word or expression defined is intended to apply. A definition contained in the definition clause of a particular statute should be used for the purpose of that Act. Definition from any other statute cannot be borrowed and used ignoring the definition contained in the statute itself.


As stated above, a statute may define a word even artificially, setting up of its ambit, whether to make restrictive of a definition or to make it extensive. When a word is defined to ‘mean’ something, the definition prima facie is restrictive in nature and is exhaustive.

A restrictive definition means that the meaning so defined in the statute for a particular word has a very restrictive ambit, so much so that its meaning cannot go beyond what has been defined. There is nothing that can be included in the meaning beyond what has been stated. There is seldom any scope for interpretation in case of a restrictive definition.

Where ‘means’ is employed, it shows that the definition enacted is hard and fast and that no other meaning can be assigned to the word “defined” that is put down in the definition.

There is a rationale behind the strict and restrictive interpretation of the word. A few examples of this are:

•CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: In England, there were tons of capital offenses. Interpretation of a statute meant the difference between life & death for the accused. Court wary of hanging people. Today, though capital punishment, not a big issues, still concerned not just with deprivation of liberty, but also with the stigma associated with a criminal offense.

• INDIVIDUALISM: Movement from the perspective of individualism to collective interests have a greater sense of community interests today, thus perhaps attenuating presumption in favor of private property rights.

When in the definition clause given in any statute the word “means” is used, what follows is intended to speak exhaustively. When the word “means” is used in the definition it is a “hard-and-fast” definition and no meaning other than that which is put in the definition can be assigned to the same.


When the word defined contains ‘include’ in the meaning, the definition is extensive in nature.

In case of an extensive definition, the definition of the word has the scope and ambit to go beyond what has been stated and it also gives the scope to interpret and incorporate as to what all can be included in that definition.

If a word is to mean one thing and include other things as well, then it does not mean that the former thing will also be included in the meaning along with the latter things.

The word ‘include’ is very generally used in the interpretation clause in order to enlarge the meaning of words or phrases occurring in the body of the statute, and when it is so used those words or phrases must be construed as comprehending, not only such things, as they signify according to their natural import, but also those things which the interpretation clause declares that they shall include.

In State of Maharashtra v. Labour Law Practitioners’ Association, the court gave the word ‘district judge’ under Art. 236(a) of the Constitution an extensive definition saying that the word would include the hierarchy of specialized civil courts viz. Labour courts and industrial courts which are not expressly included in the definition.

But the word ‘include’ is susceptible of another construction, which may become imperative if the context of the act is sufficient to show that it was not merely employed for the purpose of adding the natural significance of the words or expressions used. This may be equivalent to ‘mean and include’ and for the purpose of the act must invariably be attached to those words or expressions. Thus, the word include may sometimes be used in the context of mean and would thus limit or bar further inclusion of other things into the meaning of the word or phrase of the Act.

The word ‘include’ may in exceptional cases be construed as equivalent to ‘mean and include’.

Taking an example of this, Entry 22 of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 reads, ‘for the purpose of this entry potteries industry include the manufacture of the following articles of pottery namely-

a. Crockery,

b. Sanitary appliances,

c. Refractories,

d. Jars,

e. Electrical accessories,

f. Hospital wares,

g. Textile accessories,

h. Toys,

i. Glazed Tiles.

The Supreme Court in regard to the Entry, in the case of South Gujarat Roofing Tile Manufacturers Association v. State of Gujarat, held that the items included in it were plainly comprised in the expression ‘potteries industry’ which showed that the word ‘includes’ was not to extend the normal meaning of this expression. The conclusion was that the word includes was used in the explanation in the sense of ‘means’ and the definition provided by the explanation was exhaustive.

A definition section may also be written as ‘ is deemed to include’ which again is an inclusive or extensive definition and such a form is used to bring in by a legal fiction something within the word defined which according to its ordinary meaning is not included within it.

Wherein a definition by way of amendment replace mean by include, it is construed to give a wider meaning and perspective to the definition and that the earlier definition which was limited and restricted to the meaning so defined and to such things defined would no longer be applicable.


A definition using ‘mean and include’ is considered as exhaustive. This means that the definition will embrace only what is compared within the ordinary meaning of the ‘means’, together with what is mentioned in the ‘includes’ part of the definition.

Thus, a definition may both mean and includes wherein one thing would mean such and such thing and others would include things more than what is stated. Thus, it can include and exclude both in the sense that at one place in the definition it can include things and at the other place of the same definition it can exclude other things to be incorporated.

The definition of ‘transfer of property’ in the Gift Tax Act, 1958 came into jeopardy as the words ‘disposition, conveyance, assignment, settlement, delivery and payment’ were used in the definition which signifies different modes of transfer of property. here it was construed that the partition of a Hindu Undivided Family would not be included in this definition as the meaning cannot be extended to a transfer of property where there is not tax applied.


There are definitions that are ambiguous in itself. This happens when the definition itself is not clear as to its scope and meaning and there requires further interpretation of those words or phrases in order to understand or make it applicable to a certain case. It is presumed that the definitions given by the legislature in the statute will have an effect to the extent that there might not be any requirement to interpret the word further on and that the meaning so provided would be sufficient in itself, yet, there are definitions that the legislature makes which are ambiguous and require further interpretation.

Sir George Rankin in the case of ILM Cadija Umma v. S. Don Manis Appu, said, “A phrase having been introduced and then defined, the definition prima facie must entirely determine the application of the phrase, but the definition must itself be interpreted before it is applied, and interpreted, in case of doubt in a sense appropriate to the phrase defined and to the general purpose of the enactment.”

The use of the word “means” followed by the word “includes” in the definition of “banking company” in Section 2(bb) of the ID Act is clearly indicative of the legislative intent to make the definition exhaustive and would cover only those banking companies which fall within the purview of the definition and no other.

The definition section may itself be ambiguous and may have to be interpreted in the light of the other provisions of the Act and having regard to the ordinary connotation of the word defined. A definition is not to be read in isolation.

It must be read in the context of the phrase which it defines, realizing that the function of a definition is to give precision and certainty to a word or phrase which would otherwise be vague and uncertain but not to contradict it or supplant it altogether.” Thus, in case a definition clause is ambiguous and does not provide with a sufficient meaning, there requires interpretation for the word in the sense that it should apply to the case.

Also, in order to understand in complete the meaning of the word, it should not be read in isolation and should require taking help of other provisions or the definition for the same word provided in different statutes. This, in turn, provides rather a specific and precise meaning to the word so defined in ambiguity and helps in understanding applying it to the relevant situation and to situation wherever necessary.

Taking the example of the word ‘bank’ defined. This word has nowhere been defined. Neither the Banking Regulations Act nor the RBI Act provides an exhaustive definition of the word ‘bank’ and thus the till present it is not clear about the ambit and scope of the word bank.

Similarly, the phrase ‘immovable property’ has nowhere been defined to exhaustive sense that it is sufficient to not to look anywhere else in order to understand the meaning of the phrase.

The immovable property has been defined under three provisions in 3 different statutes. They are the Transfer of Property Act, 1882, the General Clauses Act, 1897 and the Registration Act, 1908.

1. Section 3, Transfer of Property Act, 1882
“Immovable property” does not include standing timber, growing crops or grass.

2. Section 3(26), General Clauses Act, 1897
“Immovable property” shall include land, benefits to arise out of the land, and things attached to Earth, or permanently fastened to anything attached to the Earth.

3. Section 2(6), Registration Act, 1908
“Immovable property” includes land, buildings, hereditary allowances, right to ways, lights, ferries, fisheries or any other benefit to arise out of the land, and things attached to Earth, or permanently fastened to anything which is attached to Earth, but not standing timber, growing crops nor grass.

In this, the definition given in the Transfer of Property Act is not sufficient and help of the other two provisions from the General Clauses Act and the Registration Act is taken which provides somehow a broader perspective and meaning to the phrase. The definitions themselves cannot provide with an exhaustive meaning and hence there requires interpretation of the provisions.

Even when the definition clause uses words of very wide denotation, a line may have to be drawn so as to exclude categories obviously not intended to be included. In a case already notices which construed the definition of the word ‘industry’, as contained in Section 2(j) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, the Supreme Court stated, “though this section uses words of very different denotation, line would have to be drawn in the fair and just manner so as to exclude some callings, services or undertakings.

If all the words used are given their widest meaning, all services, and all callings would come within the purview of the definition, and even the service rendered by the servant purely in a personal and domestic matter or even in a casual way would fall within the definition. It is not and cannot be suggested that in its wide sweep, the word service is intended to include the service howsoever rendered in whatsoever capacity and for whatever reason.

Wide words used in an interpretation clause may thus be given a limited meaning having regard to the context as a whole for a word in a statute whether it be in the body of the statute or in the interpretation clause is not to be construed without reference to the context in which it appears. However, it will not be correct to say that a wide word in an inclusive definition should be given a limited scope by reference merely to the ordinary meaning of the word defined.


In context to the definitions of this kind, Lord Dunedin said, “it is a novel and unheard of the idea that an interpretation clause which might easily so expressed as to cover certain sections and not cover others should be when expressed in general terms divided up by sort of theory applicana singula singulis, so as not to apply to the sections where context suggests no difficulty of application.
If the legislature defines a term, in the absence of a clear indication to the contrary, those terms shall be used as proposed. But where there is a context otherwise required, the terms or the words shall be given a meaning different from that defined in the statute and thus comes into play the part of the interpretation.

The definitions many times contain phrases like ‘unless the context otherwise requires’ or ‘unless there is anything repugnant in the subject or context’. In these situations, a contrary context may be used for the purpose of the situation in the case. And even if it has not been expressly stated in the definition, it is imperative to make the interpretation of the words so used if so required.

An argument based on contrary context which will make the inclusive definition inapplicable to any provision in the Act cannot be accepted as it would make the definition entirely useless.

When the application of the definition of a term in a provision containing that the term makes it unworkable and otiose, it can be said that the definition is not applicable to that provision because of the contrary context.

While finding the meaning of the word ‘insurer’ in various sections of the Act (Insurance Act, 1938), the meaning to be ordinarily given to it is that given in the definition clause. But this is flexible and there may be sections in the Act where the meaning may have to be departed from on account of the subject or context in which the word had been used and that will give effect to the opening sentence of the definition.

The definition of the word shall also be amended if there is a change made in the provisions of the Constitution and the Act and both do not cohere with each other due to the definition. If there is an amendment made in the Constitution or Act or both due to which some provisions do not have conformity with each other which include the usage of the meanings of the words which remain unamended, the words so defined are useless and redundant.

Taking an example of the definitions of the contrary extent, in construing the word ‘court’ in Section 14(2) of the Arbitration Act, 1940, it was held that the word court as used therein meant a court which appointed the arbitrator and the definition in Section 2(c) of the Act which defines Court as meaning a court which would entertain suit on the subject matter does not govern Section 14(2) as the context made that definition inapplicable.

Similarly in construing the word ‘workman; in Section 33-C(2) of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, it was held that the word included a dismissed workman although, in the definition of that word as given in Section 2, a dismissed workman is included only for the purpose of industrial disputes in Section 10.

The court not only has to look at the words but the context, the collocation and the object in order to interpret the meaning to relate the matter.


The definition clause so added in an Act provides with a lot of help in determining the meaning of a word in a statute. Whereas it becomes cumbersome to find the correct contention of a word used in a statute, the inclusion of definition or interpretation clause becomes helpful by providing the required context or meaning of the word so used in a statute, either once, or several times.

The definition clause has been classified into three kinds of definitions, with respect to the scope and ambit and the usage of the word. They are Restrictive definitions, which are hard and fast and are to be taken in strict sense as to what has been stated in the definition of a word, Extensive Definition, which provides with the scope of interpretation of a meaning more than what is required and the Exhaustive Definition, which contains both means and includes, wherein one part may mean something while the other would include something into the definition making is exhaustive in nature.

The other category is where there is another context required to a definition, usually stated in the definitions as ‘unless the context otherwise requires’, wherein the definition needs to have a different contention of the word for which there requires an interpretation in the sense that it is applied to a specific case. But where there is no such meaning applied, usually in case where the statutes and the Constitution are amended and the definitions of words used therein are not amended, it renders those words completely useless as the words they cannot be applied to the provisions since they are not in consonance with other provisions or the Constitution.

Formatted on February 16th, 2019.

One Reply to “Interpretation of Statutes”

  1. 14-06-2018 Bangalore
    Kindly clarify: Section 4(3) of Gratuity Act sates: “Gratuity payable shall not exceed Rs.3.50 lakhs”
    valid as on 07-05-2007
    On 07-05-2007 I was entitled to gratuity of Rs.503012/- under section 4(2) of Gratuity Act.
    oes payment of Rs.3.50 lakhs paid under section 4(3) mean that entired liability is paid by
    the employer. Rs.153,012/- is still payable to me by State Bank of India.
    Can Rs.350,000/- payment make Rs.503,012/- make zero.?
    On 24-05-2010 ceiling was enhanced to Rs.10 lakhs. Can I claim balance of Rs.153,012/- now.
    Can my statutory right be diluted by section 4(3). Is section 4(3) more important than section 4(2)?
    Kindly clarify. e-mail;

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