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Golden rule of interpretation in the Indian context

Article submitted by Yazhini, SASTRA Deemed to be University.


Interpretation is the process in which the original and true meaning of a word or term is understood in a specific context. The meaning given for a word in the English language may not be the legal meaning. The question of law differs when equated with the legislative intent. The appropriate structure of a statute is the question of law. To obtain the factual meaning of the provided term, and to interpret that in the context of law, the principles of interpretation are used. Where an interpretation of a legal provision or an enactment is to be made, it is essential to understand the legislative intent behind the enactment or provisions relevant to the facts of a case. The outcome and result obtained by anybody who is trying to understand the statute is called the interpretation of statutes. Thus, the main objective of interpretation is to find out the intention of the legislature.

Interpretation methods:

Generally, there are two types for interpreting a term—grammar and logic. The grammatical clarification is only verbal expression of the legislature. The outcome from this method does not yield the original meaning of the statute, it is the mere application of speech. This is the literal rule of interpretation. Normally, this grammatical method does not allow to arrive at the legal meaning meant originally by the judicature, and the logical method interprets the statute in terms of the situation at hand. The golden rule is used to eliminate the absurdity with the help of interpretation. This rule states that the interpretation can start from the literal rule but if the result leads to ambiguity, indistinctness, injustice, inconvenience, and hardship, then this interpretation fulfilling the motive of the legislature can be used.

Golden rule of interpretation:

The golden rule of interpretation is used to yield the question of law. This is merely a modification of the literal rule. When modifying the literal usage of the term by applying the circumstantial facts, the question of law is obtained. The literal usage often leads to ambiguity and absurdity. The golden rule helps to avoid the uncertainty of literal interpretation.

The golden rule was first defined by Lord Wensleydale in the Grey v. Pearson[i] case. The case said that “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 the absurdity and inconsistency, but no farther.”

As the golden rule is the extension of the literal rule, it was used later in the case of R v. Allen[ii]. In this case, the defendant was charged under bigamy. Normally, bigamy is not possible under the civil court of law but by applying the golden rule, it was argued that the word ‘marry’ should be interpreted as to ‘go through’ ceremony, and the conviction upon the defendant was upheld.

Advantages and disadvantages:

The advantage of golden rule are as follows:

· It helps the decision-makers to arrive at the true meaning of the words and the intention of the legislature.

· It helps to correct the incorrectness that has been made due to wrong interpretation of the draft. Thus, drafting can be done properly.

· It helps to provide judgments that are in line with the parliamentary meaning of the statute.

The major disadvantage is that the judges may interpret the law otherwise than intended by the legislature, and the same paves the way for amendments and other legal implications.

Case laws in India:

Normally, the courts in India use the literal meaning of the statues, the golden rule initially starts with the search of the literal meaning, and only if that leads to an unequivocal, plain, and ambiguous result, the rule is applied. For the application, the situation plays an important role. But the consequence of the decision should also be taken into consideration before the application of the golden rule.

In State of Madhya Pradesh v. Azad Bharat Financial Company[iii], the transporting company during transportation parcelled opium along with apples. According to section 11 of the Opium Act, 1878, all the vehicles which transport the contraband articles ‘shall be confiscated’. But in this case, the transportation company was unaware of the parcelling. If the literal rule is applied, the result may lead to injustice. Thus, by applying the golden rule, the words ‘shall be confiscated’ were changed to ‘may be confiscated’.

Sometimes, there may be a possibility of more than one meaning to the statute. To avoid further inconvenience, adding and eliminating words have to be done in order to obtain the accurate meaning of the legislature. For example, in the case of Uttar Pradesh Bhoodan Yagna Samiti v. Brij Kishore[iv], Section 14 of the U.P Bhoodan Yagna Act, 1953 had a provision to provide land for “landless person”. But it was interpreted as the “landless laborers” because the legislative meaning of the provision is to provide land to farmers who do not have agricultural land. The court said that any person who does not own land in a city will not come under this section but the landless farmers only.

Similarly, Section 6 of the Probation of Offenders Act, 1958, provides immunity to the offenders below the age of 21 by not sending them to prison with matured and experienced criminals but by providing rehabilitation for their betterment. By applying interpretation in the case of Ramji Missar v. the State of Bihar[v], it was concluded that the offenders who are under the age of 21 on the date of judgment are only entitled to the immunity of the provision. i.e., the age during the commission of a crime is not accountable but the age during the date of judgment. If the offender is below 21 during the commission of the crime and has attained the age of 21 during the judgment, he is not entitled to immunity under the provision.

Section 23 of the Representation of People Act, 1951, permits the inclusion of name in the electoral roll ‘till the last date’ for nomination. Likewise, Section 33(1) of the Representation of People Act, 1951, states the time period for enrolment as 11`o clock in the forenoon to 3`o clock in the afternoon. By applying the golden rule in the case of Narendra Kiadivalapa Kheni v. Manikrao Patil[vi], the Supreme Court by combining the above mentioned two sections and held that the enrolling can be done by the ‘last hour of the last date’ of nomination.

Difficulties during the application:

Lord Moulton in the case of Vacher & Sons v. London Society of Compositors had explained the difficulties in adapting the golden rule as “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 the 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.’’[vii]

The golden rule is a doctrine which has to be applied with due-diligence based on the factual issues. In some cases, by applying this rule, the meaning of the statue can be totally modified, which has to be kept in mind before rendering a judgment.


Unless the word does not lead to total ambiguity, considering the natural meaning of the statute shall be valid. On finding the absurdity of the natural meaning, the golden rule along with the text of the law, the logical and factual interpretation of the situation should be applied to obtain the legislative meaning.

[i] [1857] 6 HL Cas 61 [ii] [1988] crim LR 698 [iii] AIR 1967 SC 276 [iv] AIR 1988 SC 2239 [v] AIR 1963 SC 1088 [vi] AIR 1977 SC 1992 [vii] [1912] UKHL 3